Dogs are prone to shenanigans and mischievous behavior. They can also be hyperactive and inclined to act up or lash out. In simpler words, dogs can often hurt us – sometimes physically (scratches or even bites) and other times emotionally (destroyed furniture or simple disobedience). Before charging our dogs for the crime of hurting us, we must wonder whether dogs understand the concept of guilt.
Do dogs know when they hurt you? dogs are only able to understand when they hurt you by your actions, as dogs are unable to feel complex feelings such as remorse and empathy.
Dogs have sharp senses and are very observant and intuitional animals. They are very well-aware of our emotional states but fail to link their actions as the reason for our upset.
Do dogs know when they have done something wrong?
Innately and instinctively, dogs do not understand right from wrong. Instead, they focus on the basic needs for thriving and survival.
Imagine the following situation – you have left a cake on the counter. As soon as you leave the room, your dog gets on top of the counter and devours the cake you spend hours baking.
Is your dog guilty? Of course, it is culpable. But how could your dog know that eating something that is left in plain sight is inappropriate behavior?
Let’s look into another situation – you have left your dog home for a couple of hours, and when you return, you found a large pee puddle on the carpet. Once again, your dog is guilty, but it did not do anything wrong from its point of view.
It was fulfilling its basic peeing need, and the fact that it peed on the carpet was a practical choice – peeing on the tiles or other uncovered surfaces will be messier.
The good news is, although dogs do not naturally understand right from wrong, they can learn to make a difference.
Our responsibility is to teach our dogs that difference by establishing a pattern and providing consistent and timely responses to their actions. Over time, they will start associating their actions with predictable outcomes.
It is worth mentioning that dogs do not associate past actions with delayed responses. For example, there is no point in scolding your dog in the above-described situation after it has eaten the cake or peed on the rug.
The right moment for response will be if you catch it in the act. If the deed is already done, your dog will have no idea what you are fussing about.
Do dogs feel guilt?
Generally speaking, emotions can be classified as primary (basic) and secondary (complex). The group of primary emotions includes happiness and fear, while secondary emotions include guilt, shame, jealousy, and pride.
Dogs are very good at recognizing and exhibiting the primary emotions, but they do not seem to understand the complex, secondary emotions. Scientists believe that understanding complex emotions requires an advanced level of civilization which dogs lack.
What does your dog’s guilty look mean?
Although dogs do not understand the concept of guilt, they do show certain guilt-like behaviors. Common guilt-like behaviors in dogs include:
- Putting the head down
- Flattening of the ears
- Lowering the body
- Nervous lip licking
- Keeping the tail down or between the legs
- Refusal to make eye contact
- Hiding from plain sight
- Turning when you approach.
However, these guilt-like behaviors are not actual indicators your dog is feeling guilty and sorry for what it did. More often than not, they are your dog’s response to your reaction – for example, you scolded it and then sent it to its cage.
If your dog did something similar in the past and you reacted with anger, your dog is exhibiting these behaviors because it anticipates a similar reaction. In those terms, these guilt-like behaviors indicate concern, anxiety, or even fear.
The emotional experiment
In one experiment, researchers tried to determine whether dogs understand guilt. For experimental purposes, the researchers put dogs in the same room with their owners, and they placed a treat in front of each dog. The owners were instructed to forbid their dogs to eat the treats and then to leave the room.
Once the owners left the room, some dogs obeyed the owners’ instructions and refrained from eating the served treat while others ate it anyway.
Regardless of how the dogs acted, the researchers informed all owners that their dogs disobeyed and ate the treat. When the misinformed owners scolded their dogs for disobeying, although innocent, all dogs exhibited the described guilt-like behaviors. However, before being scolded, all dogs (both the guilty and the innocent) greeted their owners in the same happy and innocent manner.
The experiment concluded that when dogs act guilty, it is not because of what they have done – they look guilty as a reaction to their owners’ scolding behavior.
Similarly, in multiple-dog households, the guilty-looking dog is not always the real culprit. More often than not, the guilty-looking dog is the more emotionally sensitive dog, and it is feeling anxious while anticipating your reaction to the shenanigan the other dog did.
Do dogs feel bad when they bite you?
Dogs may not understand guilt per se, but they definitely understand pain. If you and your dog are playing and it accidentally bites or nibbles you, if you react badly, over time, your dog can associate its biting action with you feeling in pain.
For example, even if you are not particularly hurt by the biting, you should yelp. Dogs know what yelps mean. On the other hand, if you act like nothing happened and continue playing, your dog will not know it did something wrong. This may reinforce its biting habit and make it likely to bite harder the next time you play.
This differentiation is worth considering when dealing with accidental bites. Biting that stems from aggression is unacceptable behavior and requires immediate professional attention.
Do dogs show empathy?
Dogs are empathetic creatures that tend to display empathy via several methods. Some dogs are prone to one method in particular, and some can show all methods.
Dogs are likely to initiate cuddling or simply put their heads in the owners’ laps, lick their hands, paw at their owners when they sense the owners are in emotional distress.
Respecting personal space
Instead of initiating cuddles and accented touching, some dogs prefer standing down and giving their owners more privacy and personal space. These dogs will keep their distance until they sense the owners’ emotions have changed and are ready for contact.
The distraction method
Finally, some dogs may try distracting their owners or simply cheering them up. Different dogs prefer different distracting methods – some will bring balls or toys, while others will start performing tricks.
We often use the distraction method when dealing with children, and interestingly, our dogs use it with us.
According to a study published in 2018, “Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and pro-social helping in dogs,” dogs are quite responsive when they feel their owners are emotionally distressed and initiate actions to alleviate the distress levels.
There is no sense in punishing a dog that does not understand its charges. Dogs are instinctively driven animals that follow their basic needs and act accordingly. Naturally, they do not understand the concepts of right or wrong, only the ideas of necessary and practical.
However, dogs can learn to differentiate between positive and negative actions. This learning process can be lengthy and challenging, but it is the essence of raising a well-behaved and well-mannered dog.
If your dog does not understand your teaching methods, do not hesitate to ask for professional help. Your vet will happily recommend a reputable canine behaviorist or licensed dog trainer.
Do dogs know when you are mad at them?
Dogs can sense the changes in your behavior associated with feeling mad – from different smells the body releases through changes in the facial expressions to subtle body language cues. However, just because they understand you are feeling angry does not mean they know you are mad at them.
Do dogs lick to say sorry?
Considering dogs do not understand blame and guilt, it is hard to say whether they do things to apologize. However, it has shown that dogs tend to lick their owners and shower them with attention when they sense the owners are upset.
Do dogs understand illness?
If you are hurt or ill, your body will release different chemicals which your dog’s impeccable sense of smell can easily pick up. Plus, you will probably do things differently (changed routines and overall behavior), which, once again, your dog will notice.
Do dogs understand complex emotions?
Sadly, there is no scientific evidence backing up the correct answer to this question. In certain situations, dogs may seem to act following complex emotions, but whether this is an innate response or learned behavior remains a mystery.