In the Doghouse: Do Dogs Know When They've Done Something Wrong?

You turn your key in the door, expecting your dog’s normal happy dance and thumping tail. What you see is the opposite: squinty eyes, ears plastered, bowed head. “What did you do?” you ask, and he hangs his head in shame.

All of this happens before you walk into the kitchen to see the garbage carefully rearranged into a torn, chewed and sorted pile. Guilty as charged, right? Not so fast. The display of shame at the front door may be less about his guilt feelings than the attempt to lessen the scolding coming his way. Consider a recent survey showing that seventy-four percent of dog owners believe that their dogs experience guilt. Sixty percent of these dog owners claim that their dogs’ guilty behavior leads them to scold their dog less.

Science has taken on the big question of whether dogs feel guilt. Research from the Family Dog Project in Budapest, Hungary—the first research body dedicated to the relationship between dogs and humans—concludes that dogs are able to observe minute visible differences in the owner’s behavior and react to them. This may help explain the dog’s act of contrition before you even know he has been a bad boy. The dog anticipates your negative reaction to the garbage being rearranged, so he apologizes in advance, hoping for a hall pass.

Dogs are not the only species showing this behavior. Evolutionist Charles Darwin observed monkeys lowering their heads and averting their gaze to elicit tolerance and reduce conflict in group settings. The same behavior has been observed in wolves. Now that humans form the dog’s social pack, it’s not too surprising to see dogs using these displays on us, much like I would put on some heels and massage my hubby’s tired feet after backing my car over the garbage cans again.

But is this guilty act just doggie intuition or does your pooch really feel bad for the kitchen mess? An experiment at Goldsmiths College in London suggests that dogs show empathy and try to comfort people feeling emotional distress. Tested dogs approached and interacted not only with their owners, but also with a stranger that was crying. It would seem obvious, then, that if the dog can feel sorry for someone else, surely he can feel sorry for his own actions. Right?

The truth is, we just don’t know yet. Only recently, with dogs now elevated to family-member status, have humans set their sights on understanding the canine mind. Previously, dogs spent their days doing serious jobs like herding, driving cattle and guarding. Nights found them sacked out in the barn, not on the bed. They were valued according to their work ethic, not their emotional state. Dogs, on the other paw, have had all kinds of time to study us. They mentally file tidbits of knowledge about our moods, habits and tendencies, which may account for their ability to manipulate us to their benefit. I never fail to fetch a biscuit for my dog when he plops his big head in my lap and sweeps the floor with his tail. I know I’m being played, but he’s just so cute!

Scientists know animal behavior, but owners know their dogs, and no research study is likely to convince pet parents that their groveling dog isn’t fully aware he was naughty, especially when he has part of an ice cream wrapper stuck to his lip.

What are your thoughts? Does your dog feel guilty when he does something wrong, or is your fur ball a master manipulator that has you wrapped around his paw?