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Does Your Dog Feel “Guilty” When He Rips the Sofa?

Dog expert Zazie Todd says no; when assessing dog emotions, we should think more simply

Recently, BBC science writer Tom Howarth interviewed animal behaviorist Zazie Todd about how to understand canine communication better.

It’s hard for us humans to understand what dogsare thinking or feeling in some ways because when we communicate, we look for certain types of signals — a smile, a frown, a raised eyebrow, a wink — and that’s just not how dogs communicate.

One misunderstanding she addressed is the “guilty look”: “You know, the one your dog gives you when you come home and find your cushion shredded into a million and one pieces on the living room floor.” Actually, she says, humans are reading human emotions into dog behavior there.

A group of researchers decided to study the question:

Dogs were left with a tasty treat that they weren’t supposed to eat while their owners left the room. Scientists then watched what happened as the owners came back in with varying knowledge of what had played out in their absence.

What they showed is that dogs don’t really have the depth of understanding of what they’ve done to feel guilty (cheeky, right?). Instead, the guilty behaviours were much more associated with whether or not the naughty pooches were about to get in trouble with their owner.

The guilty look they give you “probably means the dog is worried that you’re going to tell them off, which isn’t quite the same thing as feeling guilt,” Todd says in relation to the study. “It doesn’t mean that they realise they’ve done something wrong, it just means they think you’re going to be angry with them.”

Tom Howarth, “Here are the secret ways your dog is communicating with you,” BBC Science Focus, June 3, 2024. The paper is open access.

That makes sense. To feel guilty in the human sense, dogs would need a sense of right and wrong that is external to the question of whether people are pleased with them. There is no good evidence that, independently, they do have that sense.

Typical humans, by contrast, never really enjoy a victory if they know they had to cheat to win. They sense an external standard by which they have failed even if the world doesn’t know the truth. That sense of not really deserving the win comes from the inner acceptance of standards to which we must assent to be fully human.

The dog’s life is easier than human life in some ways; if he isn’t in trouble with humans or other dogs, everything is fine.

Todd mentions a number of other items of dog communication that are worth noting, including this one: It’s easier for humans to tell if a dog is happy than if it is fearful because dogs may behave differently when stressed from what we might expect. Perhaps surprisingly, fearful dogs will sometimes yawn:

In a 2017 study conducted by researchers at the University of Guelph and the University of Pennsylvania, strangers approached dogs wearing a mask and a cape, flapping the cape up and down and crouching as they did so.

The team were on the hunt for subtle behaviour signals that indicated a dog was feeling fearful. Yawning was one such signal, not associated with being tired, but instead indicating that the dog was feeling scared of the stranger’s weird behaviour.

The same goes for a dog that’s licking its lips. No, they’re probably not after a tasty treat but are more likely letting you know they’re finding the situation uncomfortable. Howarth, “Communicating with you.”

There are other reasons dogs might yawn as well. In general, it is best not to assume that they are simply tired or bored:

It’s a good thing dogs love us just for being there, not for the depth at which we understand them.

You may also wish to read: The real reason why only human beings speak. Language is a tool for abstract thinking—a necessary tool for abstraction—and humans are the only animals who think abstractly. (Michael Egnor)

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Immortal Mind: A Neurosurgeon’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Does Your Dog Feel “Guilty” When He Rips the Sofa?