A Doggone Shame: Your Pup Isn’t Actually Remorseful When You Shout ‘Bad Dog!’

Don't be fooled by that droopy look

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We all know the drill: Come home to find the dog has chewed up your favorite shoes, unleash a string of “bad dog!” admonishments, watch his face drop and tail tuck between his legs, take pleasure in a successful show of canine discipline.

But it turns out barking at the barker isn’t really accomplishing anything, and it’s certainly not making him feel ashamed or teaching him a lesson. Animal behaviorists say dogs actually lack the ability to feel shame altogether, the Associated Press reports. Your dog doesn’t remember what he did wrong hours before, and that droopy look is just him responding to your flash of anger.

“Just get over it and remind yourself not to put temptation in the way next time,” Dr. Bonnie Beaver, executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, told the AP.

In one 2009 study that sought to examine the so-called “guilty dog look,” dogs were videotaped as their owners instructed them not to eat a treat then left the room. Some dogs succumbed to temptation and some didn’t, some owners knew and some didn’t, but “the look” was strongly tied to the owner’s actions—not the dog’s.

“I found that the ‘look’ appeared most often when owners scolded their dogs, regardless of whether the dog had disobeyed or did something for which they might or should feel guilty,” Alexandra Horowitz, who conducted the study and wrote Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, told the AP. “It wasn’t ‘guilt’ but a reaction to the owner that prompted the look.

In other words, don’t leave those shoes out in the first place, and if you do, save the barking for the creature with four legs.

12 comments
NJClark7
NJClark7

A very interesting article, and mind you I am a layman and know this is only a news article but I think with the new studies into dog behavior and brain activity that I would have to disagree.

I refer to Merriam-Webster’s second definition of guilt: a bad feeling caused by knowing or thinking that you have done something bad or wrong

Do the dogs exhibit behavior symptomatic of a bad feeling?  Is not submissive behavior after a destructive act an indication of a bad feeling?

We know that dogs have short-term memory but for the owners who come home not to find their dog in the act but in another room acting submissive after an earlier destructive act that has to indicate some cognition of doing bad or wrong.  Even if it is a reaction to the owner’s negative behavior towards the dog, I still believe it indicates a learned behavior which is connected to the bad feeling associated with submission, by definition “guilt.” The dog knows the destructive act will provoke that human response which makes the dog feel bad. 

MaryEHaight
MaryEHaight

Science asks questions, tests hypotheses, publishes results of tests, other scientists ask more questions, test with a number of subjects under strict methodologies, evaluate what they have learned, and publish findings for peer review. People often get upset when their ideas of the way the world works is called into question, and this includes studies on the actions of their dogs as we see in this thread. 

I would consider peer-reviewed research findings to be more likely to contain truths than untrained, casual observation by the rest of us. Dogs have an amazing ability to adapt to their surroundings -- it can be a matter of survival, as in dogs caught in fighting rings and, on being saved from that life, becoming therapy dogs, or as seen in the street dogs of Moscow where strays learned to use public transportation daily to get places where food is provided. They know how and where to engage tourists at lunchtime so they get part of a meal.

Is it such a stretch to consider that our darlings are smart enough to know when we are angry and react accordingly, looking guilty or worried or whatever human attribution we want to confer -- reacting to our body language and tone rather than to something they may have done five hours ago? Dogs do realize that when we are mad, we want them to be contrite...act submissive...we become calmer and the angry tone goes away when these expectations are met. 

Then their human can get back to being a loving companion, and get their dinner ready =)

FabiolaRodriguezLicona
FabiolaRodriguezLicona

My husband (a veterinarian and a dog trainer) and I have had many dogs, and some of them have done very wrong. I have no idea if a dog can feel guilty or shamed, but I know for sure that dogs learn to do something if they get rewarded for doing it. If you see your dog looking "guilty", you are very likely going to feel a pang in your heart and you will not him a hard time, maybe you will even pet him, so the dog will continue to put on a "guilty" stance every time you get upset. Dogs are very good at fooling humans!

Habke1000
Habke1000

Yesterday my dog chewed something up and when I walked over she look ashamed WITHOUT being prompted by me. I didn't do anything to bring the behavior on. 

Now this could be interpreted as real shame or my dog knowingly doing something wrong and acting submissive as a response to knowingly acting up. 

Either way though, her behavior wasn't a reaction to me.

westside
westside

totally disagree with this article.  I have walked into a room unaware my dog got in the garbage.  He sees me, tail between his legs and leaves the room, before I even saw the mess.  And he stays out of the room for a day or two after...not even to be coaxed in by treats, as if to say...'I don't EVER go in that room, it HAD to be the cat!'  German Shepherds definately know right from wrong and feel guilt. 

dakewlguy
dakewlguy

@Habke1000  Yes her behavior was, you entered the room. I'd put money down that if you recorded her, she would only display the 'shame' when you entered the room. Put precisely; your dog’s submissive postures are the result of anxious anticipation to an expected disciplinary action. A video would confirm that the 'shame' look is linked to your presence and not to the poor behavior.

Dogs' are incredibly smart social creatures and can react to something as simple as furrowed eyebrows.

RodneyAtkins
RodneyAtkins

@westside And herein lies the problem. You believe that your experience with one dog outweighs and overrules the results of a scientific study. This is why our country does so poorly at science. We've stressed individualism to the point that people now have not only their own opinions, but their own facts.

RonStone
RonStone

@westside They definitely remember being yelled at.  My female Shepherd likes to finish the cat's food but knows she's not supposed to.  I have to laugh when I'm in the kitchen after feeding them and she'll wander around looking innocent waiting for me to leave so she can mooch her treat.  On the other hand, if you want all the dogs to disappear, just yell "gawd" - they won't even wait around for the "dammit".

JasonNickPorter
JasonNickPorter

@RodneyAtkins @westside  Please do tell how much of this research you actually conducted. I imagine a whopping none of it, which would mean that you're just believing whatever a news article says about a study conducted by people that you've probably never heard of but trust anyway. Science creates as many sheepish followers as anything else.

RainHotdogBurritos
RainHotdogBurritos

@RodneyAtkins @westside  

My Chihuahua (one of the least intelligent dogs) does the same thing.
I come home..
He sees me.
Looks like he did something wrong and hides..
I come in my room and PEE EVERYWHERE.

Your belief that this little test that the article revealed without trying out other scenarios is what makes you a sheep to the gestures of anyone in a white coat.
Learn to use your head before you speak.

RaffiZaki
RaffiZaki

@RodneyAtkins @westside  And herein lies your problem. This is only one study, it takes many studies to confirm a hypothesis, especially in the field of sociology and animal behavior where we haven't fully mastered yet. 

I find it hilariously ironic that you judge someone on their opinion then immediately make you own with your erroneous assumption.

Learn2science bro 

RemingtonKrueger
RemingtonKrueger

@RainHotdogBurritos You realize this wasn't a "little test", the time article is a simplistic version of a portion of the study. This article is only 300 words... the book that resulted from the actual experiments is 385 pages...


Unscientific lay-publication simplified to 300 words, that contains the journalists fluff =/= entirety of the study.