Do dogs feel shame? You may be surprised

BY Thaisi Da Silva  February 26, 2014 at 2:15 PM EST
Scientists say dogs don’t really feel shame. The “guilty” look is really an attempt to change your response to them. Photo courtesy of Brandon Ross.

Scientists say dogs don’t really feel shame. The “guilty” look is really an attempt to change your response to them. Photo courtesy of Brandon Ross.

You know the look — ears back, head cowered, eyes droopy. Fido has gone through the trash again and its face is riddled with guilt. But is it really?

The Associated Press reports that animal behaviorists insist dogs lack shame. The “guilty” look is actually a reaction to owner outbursts, not the canine’s actions.

One of the first scientific studies on the “guilty dog look” was conducted by Alexandra Horowitz, an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College in New York City. She videotaped 14 dogs in a series of trials and studied how they reacted when an owner left the room after telling them not to eat a treat. When the owners returned, sometimes they knew what the dogs had done and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes the dogs had eaten the treats and sometimes they hadn’t.

“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. It wasn’t `guilt’ but a reaction to the owner that prompted the look,” Horowitz told the AP.

Despite the science, “dog-shaming” sites like dogshaming.com and shameyourpet.com remain popular. Featured dogs wear written “confessions” and often are surrounded by the remnants of their misdeeds.

Pascale Lemire, the creator of dogshaming.com, told the AP she doesn’t think dogs actually feel shame.

“I think they know how to placate us with this sad puppy-dog look that makes us think they’re ashamed of what they’ve done. My guess is that their thinking is: `Oh man, my owner is super mad about something, but I don’t know what, but he seems to calm down when I give him the sad face, so let’s try that again,’” she said.