Can Dogs Feel Guilt?

Here's what he's really thinking 🤔

Guilty dog

Have you ever walked in your house and noticed your dog acting strange, only to realize he dug through the kitchen trash again? (For the third freaking time this month!)

You probably assumed your dog was acting odd because he felt guilty for doing something wrong.

But can dogs actually feel this complex emotion?

Not quite. “Guilt is a human emotion that implies we did something wrong,” Dr. Wailani Sung, a veterinary behaviorist for the San Francisco SPCA, told The Dodo. “Most dogs do not know they are doing something wrong.”

The Dodo spoke with Dr. Sung to learn more.

The truth behind “guilty” dogs

Your dog’s “guilty” behaviors are actually just his reaction (or anticipation of) you being upset, and have nothing to do with his knowledge of what you think is right or wrong.

“I don’t think dogs know they are doing something wrong while they are doing it,” Dr. Sung told The Dodo. “They are just engaged in the activity [at] that particular moment.”

To illustrate: When your dog does something you don’t like, you might respond with a raised voice and a direct stare, which “is a threatening gesture in the dog world,” said Dr. Sung.

To de-escalate the situation, your dog might respond with submissive (aka compliant or passive) behaviors — which actually look very similar to the behaviors of a guilty person.

He might have even been through this with you before, and knows that when you see the trash can knocked over, you respond by getting mad. So he’ll anticipate your response by acting submissive, even if you haven’t gotten mad yet.

Your dog is most likely trying to stop you from staring at him or yelling at him, both of which make him feel uncomfortable, Dr. Sung said.

Signs of submissive behavior in dogs

Dogs will show submissive behaviors to prevent other dogs (or their owners) from escalating into more extreme behaviors.

“To a person, we interpret that as guilt because a guilty person usually gives similar body language,” Dr. Sung said.

Here are common submissive behaviors in dogs:

  • Turns his ears to the side
  • Lowers his head
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Licks his lips or other body parts

So, the bottom line is: If your dog shows these behaviors, he’s probably just reacting to you being upset — not showing remorse.

How to prevent undesirable dog behaviors

You should never “punish” your dog for doing something wrong. Not only is it a bit mean, but most of the time, it straight up won’t work.

Unless you caught your dog in the act or immediately after, he won’t understand why he’s being yelled at (a dog’s attention span is really short!) — so you won’t gain anything except a nervous dog.

And even if you do catch him in the act, you should never try to hurt or scare your dog, as this will only damage the bond you share with him (and again, he might not make the connection between what he’s doing and your reaction).

Instead, if you catch your dog doing something you don’t want, firmly tell him “No!” and avoid giving him your attention (after you remove him from the trash can, of course). This is discipline instead of punishment, and will actually help him learn.

And if you don’t want your dog to ruin your stuff, you should be proactive about blocking what he has access to while you’re away.

For example, if your dog loves to chew on your sneakers, hide them before you leave.

Or, if your dog loves going through your trash, try something a little more pet-proof.

Like this pet-proof trash can from Amazon for $72.72

You can also try crate training, which is a great way to keep your dog out of your stuff when you’re not there for short periods.

Try this stylish and functional dog crate from Diggs for $245

Or, if your dog doesn’t love crates, try this modern dog pen from Amazon for $49.99

And while you’re home, use positive reinforcement to encourage your dog to chew on his toys instead of your things. “When your dog starts to chew on the couch, distract him, offer a different item to chew on and reward and praise him for doing so,” Dr. Sung said.

“Always praise and reward your dog for chewing on appropriate toys, and supervise when he is around items he should not chew on,” she added.

Try this Nylabone dog chew toy (that also cleans your dog’s teeth) for only $6.99 on Amazon

To further prevent your dog’s destructive behaviors, make sure he has been exercised and has access to plenty of interactive dog toys throughout the day so he can focus his attention elsewhere, and not on your stuff.

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