The Ins and Outs of Canine Guilt

(Originally written for DogWatch, a newsletter for the general public from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine)

Whenever my dog does something wrong, I know it immediately because she looks guilty. My best friend says I’m making that up because dogs don’t feel guilt. Who’s right?

If you want to see the fur fly, just put a group of scientists and pet-lovers together and bring up the subject of animal emotions! It does seem safe to say, though, that as with animal thoughts, animal emotions probably differ from ours. However, whether animals experience guilt or any other emotion carries less weight than how our belief that they do may affect our relationship with them.

Consider a typical case. Heather goes off to work, leaving her new pup, Zippy, alone. Shortly after she departs, Zippy hears a motorcycle roar down the street. The frightened pup squats and pees to mark his territory, then gnaws on his toys for a while and dozes off. When Heather comes home, Zippy rushes to greet her at the door, but she immediately spies the puddle on the floor, yells at him, and swats him with a rolled up newspaper.

The next day Heather leaves as usual, the motorcycle roars by, and Zippy marks his territory, then plays with his toys and dozes off. However, this time when he hears Heather’s key in the lock later, he thinks, “Gee, I was really happy to see her yesterday, but there was something about the way I greeted her that made her mad. This time I’m gonna put my ears back, tuck my tail tight against my tummy, and make myself look as small as possible so she’ll know I just want to please her.”

Heather looks at her pet and yells, “Well, geez Zippy, if you knew it was wrong to pee on the floor, why the heck did you do it?” And she whaps him with the rolled up newspaper again.

Although we can never know for sure what went through Zippy’s mind, we do know that the posture he assumed is one dogs routinely use to communicate submission. When Heather interprets this as evidence of canine guilt, a breakdown in communication occurs on two fronts that could undermine their relationship.

First, Heather associates Zippy’s “guilty” body language with the pee on the floor, whereas her pet assumes that position in an attempt to ward off the angry way she greeted him when he bounced up to meet her the day before. Consequently, no matter how much she yells at or whaps him, he may never make the connection between his marking and her anger. Instead, he’ll act more and more submissive in his attempts to placate her. If scoonching down doesn’t work, he may dribble a little urine. If that only makes her angrier, he may roll on his back. If that fails, he may roll on his back and urinate.

Sadly, because Heather doesn’t understand dog language, she views the addition of urine to the display as evidence of her dog’s spiteful nature and disciplines him even more harshly: “I can’t believe you’re so mean and stupid that you’d pee right in front of me when you knowhow much I hate it!” she screams. In reality, though, Ziggy’s displays evolve from the fact that, after bitches nurse their pups, they flip them over and lick them around the rear end to stimulate them to urinate and defecate. The bitch then laps up the waste products to keep the pups and their nest clean. Thus the first act a pup performs in response to an authority figure is urination and defecation and thus Zippy’s response to his owner makes perfectly good sense to him.

The second problem with assigning canine guilt is that this creates a dead-end. If Heather decides that Ziggy’s body language communicates that he knows not to pee and does it just to irk her, then she’s left with a spiteful, mean, and stupid dog. On the other hand, if she realizes that his marking communicates a perfectly normal canine attempt to protect his territory in her absence, then she can look for ways to relieve him of this burden, such as involving him in more training to build his confidence and offering him access to a crate in her absence.

So when you find yourself thinking your pet looks guilty, stop and think about what the results of that belief will be. If it leads you to learn more about what caused the canine behavior and ways to prevent it, fine. But if that guilty look merely elicits other emotions —good or bad—that do nothing to resolve the underlying problem, lose it.