Does Your Pet Feel Guilty?

October 12, 2012 | By | Comments (0)

Consider it the opposite of bragging. Or perhaps the “anti-brag.” Everywhere I go these days, people are “outing” their pets for bad behavior. It’s done with a sense of humor; malice doesn’t enter the equation.

Here’s one of my favorites, less scatological than many of the others: “My Mom Can Never Sleep In. If she tries, I sit next to the bed and stare at her with this level of intensity.” (Via Dog-Shaming.com)

The other day, I toured a neighborhood art fair, only to stumble upon an adorable artwork: “The remorseful little rabbit with a strange stomach rash.” Well that makes sense to me. Many a rabbit has ruined many a flower in the garden.

The Remorseful Little Rabbit by James Polisky

Courtesy of Artist James Polisky

And then there’s the expression “in the doghouse,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “in a bad situation because someone is angry at you: in trouble.” (Of course, if you look at these fanciful over-the-top doghouses featured on BobVila.com, you might decide that such digs are no punishment at all.)

Betty Portuguese Water Dog Courtesy of JohnStuartStudio

Courtesy of JohnStuartStudio.com

All of this got me thinking: do dogs feel guilt? Or do we just ascribe this emotion to them because it’s something that we experience? I caught up with Alexandra Horowitz, who teaches psychology at Barnard College, Columbia University. Horowitz earned her PhD in Cognitive Science and has studied the cognition of humans, rhinoceros, bonobos, and dogs. Her latest book is called Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know.

Q: Do dogs feel guilt?

A: “We don’t have evidence that they do or that they don’t. There is lots of good work showing they have some rudiments of ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ as many animals seem to; guilt, however, like all secondary emotions, may be a product of human culture. An experiment I ran, that has been replicated by others, shows that the ‘guilty look’ that all owners recognize in their dogs — head hung low, tail between the legs, looking away, etc. — is prompted more by a scolding or a certain tone of voice or body posture, not by having done something wrong. This doesn’t prove that they don’t feel guilt! It indicates that the ‘guilty look,’ though, is more a sign of submission — a request not to be scolded — than a sign of their feeling guilty.”

Q: How do they know they’ve done something wrong?

A: “Their rules of right and wrong around humans are learned from humans — just as a child learns from others what is right or wrong. We scold them, for instance. When around dogs, they get better things when they behave fairly — for instance, a dog who wants to play but doesn’t follow the ‘rules’ of play doesn’t find a lot of other dogs willing to play with him.”

Q: How does association come into play? If they have been reprimanded for something in the past, do they know to avoid it in the future?

A: “Dogs and humans both learn many things by association: for instance, the following of an action with something desirable or something undesirable. There is ‘one-trial’ learning, where I, for instance, touch the hot stove and learn by the immediate burn never to do it again, but with most learning, it takes a few pairings before we learn, ‘Oh, that action led to that result.’”

Q: How do you explain the behavior of “the tail between the legs?”

A: “It’s an expression of the dog’s emotional state — it could be fear, submission, unease, depending on the context.”

What about you? Do you believe your pets feel guilty from time to time? Have you decided — perhaps all in good fun — to embarrass them online about their latest indiscretion? Do tell!

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