A recent article by “Scientific American” asks an important question: “Do Dogs Feel Guilty?” But is their answer significant to how you should handle the behavior from a dog training perspective?
Let me be the first to state that while I don’t believe that a dog can “feel” guilt, it can demonstrate behaviors that emulate what a human would call a guilty behavior. The conclusions of the article (read the article here) are incredibly open ended, and leave room for a great deal of confusion.
While this article highlights the fact that dogs may exhibit a reaction that humans equate to “Guilty Feelings”, it doesn’t really get to the root of the stimulus/response question. Why do dogs hang their heads when we come home and they have done something “Bad”?
This act of remorse is a learned response that is triggered by a true dog emotion: Self preservation. Other studies have shown a different side of this.
How to Make Your Dog Act Guilty
If a dog is scolded when it’s owner returns home after the dog tears through a trash bag, the dog is very likely to act remorsefully the next time the owner comes home and finds trash strewn about the home.
In this example researchers spread trash around for the dog, to make it appear that the dog tore the trash apart although the dog did not get into the trash at all. The conclusion? The dog has learned to react to the sight of the trash, and isn’t acting guilty it just knows that when trash is spread around the house and you come home, he’s going to be in trouble. Even if he isn’t responsible.
Training Your Dog Without Using Guilt
Keep in mind that you have 1.3 seconds to catch a dog doing something right or wrong for them to link your response to their action.
Ask your dog to sit for you and put a treat in their mouth within 1.3 seconds and you’ve just rewarded them for sitting on command. However, if you take 2 seconds to reward them, you are now reinforcing their current behavior… Most likely the sit stay.
Catch a dog digging in the trash, and you can correct them for that to change his future behavior. Catch him hours (or just 2 seconds) after the fact, and now you’re correcting for whatever he’s doing in the moment. i.e. standing in the middle of the trash.This is an important distinction for anyone who actually wants to train their dog not to eat from the trash can, as opposed to a dog that “looks guilty” after it does.
Conclusion: Can Dogs Feel Guilty?
The article does a nice job of creating some intriguing thoughts. But it doesn’t really address this question so much as suggest that dogs may demonstrate behaviors that emulate a guilty complex. Much more research will need to be done before we can throw away years of research that shows dogs can’t express guilt. Don’t let it confuse the larger issue when it comes to actually training your dog. You must catch your dog getting it right or wrong in the moment. Anything longer than 1.3 seconds, and the moment is gone!
Your comments and questions are always welcome. Thanks!