Does your dog actually feel guilty when he's misbehaved? Learn to understand what he's thinking
Updated: Jul 15, 2021
Dog Shaming seems to have lost popularity recently, but I'm sure you've heard of it. The idea is to take a photo of your pet after they've done something you'd rather they didn't, like digging through the rubbish, chewing your favourite pair of shoes, or peeing on something very expensive. There's usually a comment from the owner about how 'guilty' puppy looks, and a sign explaining what they've done. It started as a funny, light-hearted way to vent about your dog's not-so-desirable antics.
But what exactly does a guilty dog look like?
Is there even such a thing?
And what is your pup really saying when you catch them in the act and they flash you that look?
When I speak to owners about the problems they're experiencing with their dog, the phrase "he knows he shouldn't do it" almost always comes up. Often this is in response to an unwanted behaviour like toileting indoors, or sneaking on the sofa once you leave the house. But sometimes, worryingly, it's in the aftermath of a dog growling or biting. From the owner's perspective the dog has done something very concerning, and the 'guilty' behaviour is like an apology. But from the dog's perspective that's not what's happening at all.
Dogs don't know the difference between right and wrong or good and bad. They only understand safe and dangerous. Pleasant and Unpleasant. What works and what doesn't work. So when your dog looks up at you through his eyelashes and puts his head down, he doesn't actually feel guilty. The idea makes sense to us as humans, because it's easy to think, "He should know better! I taught him not to do that!". But actually, he may just have thought that doing that (whatever it is) is unsafe, or leads to something unpleasant.
Dogs don't know the difference between right and wrong, or good and bad. They only understand safe and dangerous. Pleasant and Unpleasant. What works and what doesn't work.
This is a common issue that comes up when house training puppies. If you catch a pup toileting indoors you might rush over to tell them off, and they will probably look very guilty and apologetic. But in that moment they're not learning that toileting indoors is wrong. They're likely learning that it's unsafe: because you get upset or punish them. In future they might not toilet inside, but they might also learn to avoid going in places where you'll find it or even stop toileting in front of you all together. I'm yet to meet someone who's pleased with this idea!
So if they aren't actually feeling bad for doing something wrong, what is your dog doing? Naturally, dogs want to find good things and avoid bad things, just like we do. Unlike us they can't just explain what they want and how they're feeling. Instead, they communicate in multiple ways: body language, vocalisations (noises), and even through scents. 'Guilty' dog behaviour is actually worried dog behaviour, and is your dog's way of trying to avoid a fight.
If early signs aren't listened to their stress levels will increase, and the dog is forced to escalate their behaviour to be listened to. This is called the Stress Escalation Scale, and it's a bit of a cheat-sheet to help you decode your dog's body language in situations they find intense or worrying. You can see as stress levels increase (blue to red), the dog's behaviour changes.
The 'guilty' dog is usually showing plenty of what we call appeasements. These are signals your dog uses to avoid conflict - basically saying, "I'm not looking for a fight!". Some of these you may already associate with a fearful dog - such as cowering, tucking the tail between their legs, and holding their ears back - but others may surprise you. Yes, yawning and lip-licking can be signs your dog is feeling a low level of stress!
If stress levels continue to increase, you may see physical stress responses like wide eyes (or 'whale eye'), panting, and raised hackles. These can commonly be misinterpreted as aggressive behaviours, but are actually caused by hormones like cortisol and adrenaline being released by the brain in a variety of stressful situations.
It's important to understand that sometimes dogs don't start at the bottom of the scale and slide slowly upwards. If they did, our lives and my job would be much simpler. But unfortunately, many dogs have learned through experience that certain behaviours just don't work when they want to be left alone, and so they start at orange and jump to red with little warning. Others might usually give plenty of warning, but perhaps this situation is too overwhelming. They yawn and look away, and when that doesn't work they jump straight to a growl.
However, with all this being said, make sure you consider context. Stress can be positive (excitement) or negative (anxiety), so many of these signals will come out when your dog is experiencing something intensely fun or positive. For instance, dogs often greet their owners by stretching, and you're likely to notice their ears are back when you give them a fuss after getting home from work. In that context, they're likely happy to see you rather than overly worried. Similarly, you've almost certainly seen your dog do a 'shake off' after an intense play session with another dog friend, and that just means, "wow, that was intense!".
Other dogs have learned that humans pay them attention if they show their belly, and will confidently roll over for a tickle. Breed can play a huge role too. For instance, sighthounds like lurchers often carry their ears against their head naturally, so don't worry that they're permanently stressed out. And if you give your dog something tasty and they're still licking their lips 10 minutes later, they're probably pretty pleased with themselves!
So hopefully now you'll look over at your dog and have a slightly different appreciation for their body language and communication skills. Your dog is always talking to you, you just need to learn what they're saying!
WoofWHYs is a series where I answer your dog behaviour and training questions. If you've ever thought, "Why does my dog do that?" then this is where you'll find out! Feel free to get in touch with your own WoofWHYs for a chance to be featured next time.