Can Dogs Feel Guilty?

dog acting guilty

We’ve all seen dogs acting guilty. But behaviors like avoiding eye contact, hiding, or creeping don’t mean that a dog knows he did something wrong and wants to reform. They mean we need to change our reactions to what he did.

You’ve seen the signs – hiding, sidelong glances, or other apparently shifty, sheepish behaviors. Your dog has done something he shouldn’t have and is feeling guilty. Or is he? Fact is, the body language we interpret as guilt is actually something quite different.

Let’s start with two examples of canine “guilt” and the negative ways in which the dogs’ owners respond. Sometimes, Ed comes home from work to discover that his Boston terrier, Toby, isn’t there to greet him. Ed knows the drill. He calls for Toby, but usually ends up searching for him. Typically, Toby is found hiding in a corner somewhere; he gives Ed a pained glance then turns his head away or lies down to expose his belly. Ed correctly deduces that Toby has chewed something in his absence – usually a shoe or slipper – and proceeds to scold him.

Abby’s “guilt” manifests a little differently. When her owner, Carol, comes home, Abby greets her happily. But when Carol steps into the kitchen, she discovers the trash can has been tipped over. Carol’s stern “Abby, come here!” results in the dog approaching in a crouched position with evident regret written all over her face. Carol can’t understand why, if the dog “obviously knows” she’s done something wrong, punishment isn’t changing the behavior.

It’s all in the body languageguilty dog licking lips

Some of the canine body language signs we interpret as guilt include:

  • Crouching or crawling
  • Looking away or turning the head
  • Offering the belly
  • Whining
  • Licking actions
  • Yawning
  • Tail tucking and backbone arching
  • Looking at you with large sad eyes

All these signs seem to shout “I’m guilty!” so it’s understandable that this is how many dog owners interpret them. But they’re not guilty behaviors – they’re appeasement or calming behaviors.

Dog do a lot of their communication through body language. Using specific signals, they send us what they feel are clear messages, only to be puzzled when we don’t understand. For example, a dog crawling towards or away from you while watching or glancing back, is not feeling guilty. He’s actually trying to tell you to calm down. Some may watch you, as Abby did, to see if their calming attempts are working. If they fail, and the person’s state of “being upset” threatens the dog’s feelings of safety, he may try and escape (hiding) or employ overly-submissive behaviors (exposing the belly).

Calming signals

When it comes to trying to calm people, dogs have an entire body language vocabulary they can use. In her book Calming Signals, dog trainer and behaviorist Turid Rugaas revolutionized how we understand our dog’s attempts to communicate with us and each other. Although it’s popular to think that dogs spar among themselves to see who is the alpha individual, in truth, they more often work to keep the peace. Turid observed that dogs will try and calm each other with certain signals. One signal is the head turn. Two other signals, lip-licking and yawning, may be used by a dog to either calm you or himself.

Appeasement behaviors

In addition to calming signals, a dog may try appeasement behaviors such as crouching or crawling, or exposing his belly. Unfortunately, because people often misinterpret these behaviors as guilt, this creates the assumption that the dog knows exactly what he did wrong. Some owners may decide that the guilty-looking dog who fails to reform is being defiant, and may try punishment to change behavior. If the owner becomes harsher than the dog can tolerate, the dog may become overly submissive or downright fearful. Overly-submissive behaviors can range from exposing the belly to urinating.

Changing human perspectives

When a dog is showing what we perceive as guilty behavior, it is usually the owner who needs to be trained, not the dog (see sidebar). People need to understand that their disapproval and stern tone of voice — or worse, shouting and punishments — are upsetting their dogs. They also need to understand that dogs exhibiting “guilt” are not focused on changing their behaviors, but on getting their humans to calm down.

In other words, what we see as guilty behavior is not about the dog recognizing that he did something wrong and wanting to reform. His goal is simply to get his angry human to calm down. Anyone dealing with behaviors they don’t like, such as the destructiveness exhibited by Ed and Carol’s dogs, first needs to understand what’s at the root of the unwanted behaviors, and then use positive training or behavior modification to fix them. This way, the owner doesn’t get angry, and the dog won’t act “guilty” in an effort to calm her down.

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