Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Do dogs feel guilt?

Here's an interesting blurb that has been making the rounds lately:

ScienceDaily (June 11, 2009) --- What dog owner has not come home to abroken vase or other valuable items and a guilty-looking dog slouching around the house? By ingeniously setting up conditions where the ownerwas misinformed as to whether their dog had really committed an offense,Alexandra Horowitz, Assistant Professor from Barnard College in NewYork, uncovered the origins of the "guilty look" in dogs in the recently published "Canine Behaviour and Cognition" Special Issue of Elsevier's Behavioural Processes. ( http://tinyurl.com/mpkmpk ) Horowitz was able to show that the human tendency to attribute a "guilty look" to a dog was not due to whether the dog was indeed guilty. Instead, people see 'guilt' in a dog's body language when they believe the dog has done something it shouldn't have -- even if the dog is in fact completely innocent of any offense.During the study, owners were asked to leave the room after ordering their dogs not to eat a tasty treat. While the owner was away, Horowitz gave some of the dogs this forbidden treat before asking the owners back into the room. In some trials the owners were told that their dog had eaten the forbidden treat; in others, they were told their dog had behaved properly and left the treat alone. What the owners were told,however, often did not correlate with reality.Whether the dogs' demeanor included elements of the "guilty look" had little to do with whether the dogs had actually eaten the forbidden treat or not. Dogs looked most "guilty" if they were admonished by their owners for eating the treat. In fact, dogs that had been obedient and had not eaten the treat, but were scolded by their (misinformed) owners, looked more "guilty" than those that had, in fact, eaten the treat. Thus the dog's guilty look is a response to the owner's behavior, and not necessarily indicative of any appreciation of its own misdeeds.This study sheds new light on the natural human tendency to interpret animal behavior in human terms. Anthropomorphisms compare animal behavior to human behavior, and if there is some superficial similarity,then the animal behavior will be interpreted in the same terms assuperficially similar human actions. This can include the attribution of higher-order emotions such as guilt or remorse to the animal. The editor of the special issue, Clive D.L. Wynne of the Department of Psychology, University of Florida, explained, "this is a remarkably powerful demonstration of the need for careful experimental designs if we are to understand the human-dog relationship and not just reify our natural prejudices about animal behavior." He pointed out that dogs arethe oldest domesticated species and have a uniquely intimate role in the lives of millions of people. Recent research on dogs has indicated more human-like forms of reasoning about what people know than has been demonstrated even in chimpanzees.

I thought this was a great study! This is something I hear from my clients everyday, ESPECIALLY when talking about housebreaking puppies.

Think of it from the puppy's point of view. You go off to work and leave them at home and they go about their business for the day, which, naturally, includes pooping and peeing. DUH! Their owner comes home and they are so excited because they've been BORED; they run over to greet them and maybe even are excited enough that they pee on the floor a little bit right there. Suddenly they look up and realize their owner's face looks like a thundercloud...uh oh. Somebody must have peed on mom's wheaties today! So puppy tries his best to show placating and submissive behavior which includes lower head, slinking, not making direct eye contact...all of which convinces the owner that the puppy knows what he did wrong, when in fact, the poop occurred several hours ago and is the farthest thing from the puppies mind. What he HAS learned, however, is to scan your face and body language carefully when you walk through the door and react accordingly.

So here a very important rule in training, especially when you start housebreaking your pup. If you didn't see it happen, it doesn't count. So if you catch the pup in the act, you can take action to interrupt him and get him outside to where he SHOULD be going; this can be a clap, a verbal no, etc; but should NOT be overwhelming for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if you scare him the most likely thing he's going to do is urinate submissively- just what you are trying to stop! Secondly, he will learn that eliminating in front of you is a BAD thing and he should only do it while you're not watching- so instead of going when you take him out on leash (you are going out with him on leash, aren't you, so you can reward right away when he goes??!), he waits to sneak off into the dining room when you aren't looking. And finally, harsh corrections for housebreaking mistakes I firmly believe are a big factor in dogs who are fearful as adults. This is a big imprinting time in their lives and we do not want any big scary associations with humans that will last a lifetime. (I also believe that housebreaking mistakes are so upsetting to us because they involve a violation of OUR territorial rights...but I digress).

Another common scenario is the dog who is bored and chews up the sofa cushion while you are at work. You come home, flip out, and punish him; he starts to feel anxiety as the time approaches when you come home each day and to alleviate the anxiety he finds something to chew...pretty soon we have a full fledged separation anxiety dog who may require medication to break the cycle.

Ultimately, while it is very interesting to contemplate how are dogs are feeling and what feelings motivate certain behaviors, when it comes to changing those behaviors the emotions behind them are mostly irrelevant. If you don't like a behavior, you reinforce an incompatible behavior- for example, if you don't like a dog who barks like an idiot at guests when they come in, you teach him to go to his mat, lie down, and wait for a cookie when the doorbell rings. It really doesn't matter much if he is barking because he is excited, scared, or protective; you just pick another behavior to reinforce.

Don't take this to mean that I don't think dogs experience many of the same emotions that humans do- I think in many instances they do! They certainly feel fear, joy, and anger; I am not sure that the majority of dogs feel guilt as we would interpret it but I would not rule it out. BUT (and it's a big but) I think that humans are much better at projecting their own emotions onto their dogs than they are at interpreting accurately what the dog is really feeling. And I can't tell you how often I hear the whole saga of "I KNOW he knew that peeing on the floor was bad by the way he acted"- at least daily. I can think of very few instances where I thought the client's assessment was accurate- puppies don't know that peeing on the floor is wrong until you teach them- hopefully using rewards for going in the RIGHT spot rather than punishment for the wrong spot. It's like me coming in and punishing you for breathing- it would be the last thing that would occur to you I was upset about because for you it is a very natural behavior. But I think hours analyzing each tiny detail of the dog's emotion from a training standpoint is not helpful and can be counterproductive- just change the behavior and quit making excuses for it.


  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  2. What I find so alarming is that so many trainers are regurgitating the words of Dr. Horowitz as though they are fact. It may be true that some people impose their emotions upon their dogs at times. To say dogs don't feel guilt or have an ability to think abstract thoughts is to over simplify and to underestimate the ability of our canine friends. Many experts over the years have been wrong and schools of thought change. I wish people would be more careful and thoughtful and less willing to follow blindly, just because a behaviorist said so.