Does your dog really feel guilt, jealousy and shame?

Does your dog really feel guilt, jealousy and shame?

by Amy Robinson
Sniff & Barkens Dog Training Expert

Guilt is a human emotion, but it may not be exclusively ours!

Animal behaviorists, scientists, and dog cognition experts have found that a dog’s cognition level is similar to that of a two year-old child, because children do not feel more complex emotions until about four years of age. This supposition tells us that the guilty look dogs wear when we return home to find a mess is merely a preemptive submissive gesture meant to make us pretend not to see the overturned garbage in the kitchen.

If that is so, then how do we explain the over-the-top display of mea culpa when you come home from work and cheerfully greet your dog, but he is hanging his head as if he just heard about a worldwide shortage of bacon – with no evidence of bad behavior in sight?

Dogs are intuitive. They study our body language and read us like a book. A dog that has misbehaved in the past and been disciplined for those behaviors (chewing shoes, stealing food off counters) remembers the look of disapproval that came from his owner’s face and the body language that accompanied this disapproval. This was not a pleasant experience for him, so he imprints the memory: Mom’s furrowed brow = no fun walk, belly rub or treats.

Fast forward a few weeks or even months later when another crime is committed. Before you even bend down to say hello to your faithful friend, he is already showing the same submissive postures he hopes will give him a pass on your disapproval.

Lest we think this is a human-based emotion that we have heaped on our dogs, let’s remember that this same behavior has been observed in wolves. A lower-ranking wolf caught romancing the alpha female while the alpha male is out hunting knows he is in trouble when the big guy figures it out, so he will exaggerate his submissive display when the alpha male returns from the field. Interestingly, observers have reported that the alpha male seems immediately suspicious of this welcoming committee. In this case, would the alpha wolf have known about the tryst if the submissive wolf had played it cool?

Now that humans are the leaders of the dog’s social pack, it’s not too surprising to see dogs using these displays on us, but these displays may not just be surface behaviors. A study by Christine Harris and Caroline Prouvost of the University of California in San Diego called “Jealousy in Dogs” and published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, shows that dogs absolutely experience what we would call jealousy in humans. The study involved 36 dogs and owners. Dogs were videotaped while their owners interacted pleasantly with inanimate objects, like a pumpkin, or read a book out loud, and then when they fussed over a realistic-looking stuffed dog. No dog owner with more than one best friend at home will be surprised by the conclusion of the study: We found that dogs exhibited significantly more jealous behaviors (e.g., snapping, getting between the owner and object, pushing/touching the object/owner) when their owners displayed affectionate behaviors towards what appeared to be another dog as compared to nonsocial objects.

If dogs feel jealousy, then why can’t they feel guilt?

Dr. Marc Bekoff, scientific researcher and author of 30 books, including The Emotional Lives of Animals, has won many awards for his scientific research, including the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Dr. Bekoff says we may be too hasty in assuming dogs don’t experience higher emotions, such as jealousy and guilt. In his essay for Psychology Today entitled Dogs Know When They’ve Been Dissed, and Don’t Like it a Bit he wrote: “There’s no doubt that many animals experience rich and deep emotions. It’s not a matter of if emotions have evolved in animals but why they have evolved as they have. We must never forget that our emotions are the gifts of our ancestors, our nonhuman animal kin. We have feelings and so too do other animals. We need to keep the door open on the cognitive, emotional, and moral capacities of other animals.”

Being sensitive to the subtleties of dog behavior is a good thing. We have so much more to learn.