Q & A: Feeling guilty

Q: Do dogs feel guilt like we do?

A: The short answer: no. Sometimes our dogs do look incredibly guilty after they have done something they shouldn’t have, but in reality, we as humans are completely misinterpreting what is going on. This links closely with another common misconception: my dog knows exactly what he did wrong! No, he really doesn’t, I promise. Let’s explore these issues.

When your dog has done something you’re not happy with, your body language changes. You may be a bit upset and look at the dog angrily, your tone of voice may change and you even talk louder.

Dogs are very sensitive to our body language and can notice that something is wrong, and they start feeling nervous or scared. So what we perceive as a ‘guilty’ look is often the dog using dog body language to try to tell you to calm down, because you are scaring him a little!

In other words, the dog is reacting to your body language when you discover that ‘naughty’ thing he did! He doesn’t know what he did wrong, he just knows you are upset.

We live in a human world where we follow human rules. Dogs are animals, and they have no way of knowing our rules.

Would you bring a wild animal into your home and expect him to ‘behave’? Dogs are domesticated, meaning that they need human companionship. It does not mean that they automatically know what we expect of them.

Since they don’t understand our rules without proper training, how would they be capable of feeling guilty about breaking them?

Apart from that, the dog’s brain is not sufficiently developed to feel guilt.

Noleen Fourie, behaviourist



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