Can dogs feel guilty? Does our scolding help?

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We tend to think dogs can feel guilty as they show a guilty look, or they intend to “misbehave” just to piss us off. Are dogs intellectually capable of feeling guilty?

Guilt, revenge and deception are beyond a dog’s ability

Their cognitive ability is equivalent to those of a 2 or 3 year old child – they can process and demonstrate basic emotions such as pleasure, fear and anger. However, when it comes to guilt, one must have a high level of self consciousness, be able to judge right from wrong with pre-established moral standard, understand how one’s own behaviour affects others before guilt can be established. All of these prerequisites are simply beyond a dog’s ability. It is to say that dogs cannot develop complicated cognitive emotions including guilt, revenge and deception.

The so-called guilty look is a response to the owner’s cues

Then what do all those signs of guilt – head and tail down, ears tug behind, shrink or hide away, mean? Dogs are very good at observation. They can recognise something is wrong from humans’ expression and tone, or learn from past experience. For example, they would learn to know they get scolded at when their owners come back home and see their pee, a chewed shoe on the floor. They would start getting nervous, showing submissive gesture just to try to reduce your anger. For dogs, the signs of what we think are guilt (looking away, turning away, pining their ears back to their heads, hiding), are in fact their natural calming signals trying to settle disputes. The so-called guilty look is a response to the owner’s cues.

Your anger contributes nothing to your dog’s misbehaviour

Dogs have memories of only a few seconds in general. This means if “misbehaviour” takes place a while ago, dogs are incapable of associating the particular incident with your scolding. But from your cues of facial expression, tone and manner, they know you are not happy but fail to link the cause of your anger to their behaviour a while ago. Not to mention linking the cause of your anger to their behaviour a while ago. So, scolding, screaming or physically punishing your dog doesn’t serve any purpose other than to release your anger. This doesn’t help give your dog a lesson, instead this just creates an image of you as a mean owner in their minds!

The better and more constructive approach is to review what else we could have done to prevent “misbehaviour” from happening. For example, keep doors closed? Get a fence to keep dogs away from sofa? Let no food on the table? Leave toys to dogs before getting out of home? Ask questions such as whether your dog looks anxious being alone, and whether your dog has sufficient potty training. When you take all necessary precaution measures, and/or when your dog gets the right training, things will only get better. You can definitely outsmart your dogs using the right “parenting” technique!

Credit: Written by Cactus Mok, Certified Professional Dog Trainer, CPDT-KA, HKDR Positive Partners Training Course Instructor. Translated to English by hellodog team.

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Related reading: My dog can be bored to death?

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