Do Dogs Experience Guilt?

This is an argument that has long raged on. Owners say, of course a dog feels guilty — look at him! but experts disagree –vehemently; your dog is simply reacting to you.

Dogs experience many emotions (it’s a proven fact), all the major ones like love, happiness and fear. Secondary emotions like pride, jealousy or guilt — not so much. The reason, experts claim, is these secondary emotions require a level of self-awareness that dogs just don’t have.

Many experts have performed many tests to determine whether dogs experience guilt. The tests usually go like this: An owner leaves the room after telling the dog not to eat a treat. While gone, the tester gives the dog a treat. The owner comes back into the room. The tester will say either that the dog ate the treat or didn’t and may not necessarily correspond to whether the dog actually ate it. Nevertheless, the dogs most exhibit “guilty” looks when the owner scolds them, but not necessarily when the owner was told they ate it when they really didn’t. Therefore, experts conclude that the guilty look is merely a response to the owner (and the owner’s tones and behavior) than to committing a forbidden act itself. Experts feel the guilty look really means, “Don’t punish me for whatever you think I did.”

Why do dogs act guilty if they don’t feel it? It’s a learned association. When you get mad, your dog learns very quickly that if he tucks his tail in and lowers his head, you’ll stop yelling or stop being/sounding/acting angry. (For the rest of us not involved in the situation, when you see a dog looking guilty, you just want to hug him and say “aww.” Look cute and he’ll soon be loved again.)

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