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Do Dogs Feel Guilty? Understanding Dog Behavior & Emotions

Written by: Kathryn Copeland

Last Updated on March 22, 2024 by Dogster Team

labrador retriever dog lying on the floor looking bored or sad

Do Dogs Feel Guilty? Understanding Dog Behavior & Emotions


Dr. Amanda Charles Photo


Dr. Amanda Charles

BVSc MRCVS (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Have you ever walked into your house and immediately knew that your pup was up to no good? Your feeling seems to be confirmed when your dog looks super guilty—you know, when they can’t look you in the eye and hang their head.

So, does this mean your dog knows that they’ve done something wrong and feels guilty? The truth is: not really. When dogs look guilty, they’re probably just responding to your emotions and body language rather than understanding that they did something wrong.

Here, we reveal how dogs likely feel when they give you that ashamed look (hint: it’s not what you think!).

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Do Dogs Experience Feelings of Guilt?

If you’ve ever been subjected to your dog’s look of shame after they’ve done something naughty or seen those hilarious photos of sad-looking pups with written admissions of their “crimes” by their owners, you’ve probably assumed that dogs do indeed feel guilt.

However, this is not the case. A 2009 study examined those “guilty” dog expressions, specifically the ones that appeared after owners reacted in various ways after their dogs disobeyed their commands.1 It was found that the dogs that were scolded exhibited obvious signs of “guilt,” and the owners who remained neutral observed that their dogs did not seem to “feel guilty.” In addition, dogs that had actually been obedient showed more of the “guilty” behaviors when scolded by their owners on their return.

Researchers concluded that the guilty look that dogs exhibit is based on their owner’s reaction rather than recognizing that they did something wrong.

Image Credit: Masarik, Shutterstock

Why Do Dogs Sometimes Look Guilty?

What might appear as a look of guilt to us is something completely different in the dog’s world. They are actually reacting to their owner’s voice, which has taken on a scolding tone, and their angry body language.

A dog’s “guilty look” is usually a form of fear and stress. When a pup is anxious and stressed, they exhibit the following signs:

  • Avoiding eye contact (turning their head or body away)
  • Squinting
  • Showing whale eye (the whites of their eyes)
  • Lowering the body and crouching
  • Excessive yawning and licking of the lips
  • Tucking their tail
  • Ears flattening to the head

You’ll notice that in videos where a dog is labeled “guilty,” they exhibit many of these signs, particularly avoiding eye contact and squinting. So, if your dog poops on the floor, it can be challenging to resist scolding them, but your pet can detect the slightest angry tone in your voice, which is when they will avoid looking at you.

In human terms, this type of body language is a clear sign that someone feels guilty, which is why we assume that our dogs feel the same way. But now you know that this just isn’t true.

sad looking brown labrador retriever with owner
Image Credit: My-July, Shutterstock

Dogs Do Feel Basic Emotions

Dogs experience basic emotions, which are thought to be similar to those of a child who is 2 to 2 ½ years old.

These can include:
  • Joy
  • Fear
  • Anxiety and stress
  • Disgust
  • Excitement
  • Contentment
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Love

But toddlers and dogs don’t necessarily have complex emotions, such as:

  • Guilt
  • Contempt
  • Pride
  • Shame

This is why your dog will not judge you for your hair or clothing or how much you make. As you know, dogs love us unconditionally.

Image Credit: CHAIUDON, Shutterstock

A Dog’s Appeasement Signals

It’s been further suggested that the signs that dogs display when they are under threat and stressed are part of an attempt to appease their humans. A 2017 study found that dogs that felt threatened in a minor way were more likely to lick their lips and look away/not make eye contact.

Signs of appeasement in dogs can be:
  • Yawning
  • Sniffing the ground
  • Scratching
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Licking lips
  • Submissive smiling (bared teeth, which can be mistaken for aggression)

Dogs do these things to try to appease another dog or a human. They are letting the other person or animal know that they can be trusted and come in peace.

If you scold your dog and notice these signs, they are simply trying to communicate to you that they aren’t a threat.

Do Dogs Understand When They’ve Done Something Wrong?

When a dog does something wrong, they won’t necessarily understand why you’re scolding them, even if it occurred a few seconds ago.

Some dogs will continue to do the wrong thing if you give them a reaction, even when it’s negative because some attention is better than no attention. This is why using punishment isn’t effective with dogs. If your dog poops on the floor and you catch them in the act and then yell at them, they won’t understand why you’re yelling. Even if they do, they will likely poop somewhere else, such as the basement, in order to hide it and appease you.

puppy scolded for chewing sofa
Image Credit: cunaplus, Shutterstock

Separation Anxiety

When a dog does something wrong in our eyes, such as pooping on the floor, ripping apart the couch, or getting into the garbage, it might be a case of separation anxiety. Many dogs that are left alone for long periods frequently can get quite bored and lonely, which leads to destructive behavior. When you arrive home, your dog is happy to see you—until you notice the mess and destruction that they’ve left in their wake. Then you start scolding them, and they don’t know why you’re upset.

Dogs have a short attention span, so yelling at or punishing them will just lead to fearful and nervous animals.

What to Do When Your Dog Misbehaves

As we discussed, punishment is not an effective way to correct misbehavior in the long term. If you catch your puppy in the act, a verbal reprimand such as ‘no’ can be used to interrupt the misbehavior,  and then you should redirect your dog to an appropriate behavior. Any verbal corrections must take place while the misbehavior is occurring, and not after, or your pup will have no idea why they are being told off.

Generally, when a dog is doing something that you don’t like, they are often doing what comes naturally to them rather than trying to misbehave and be naughty. For example, chewing is a normal dog behavior.  It’s important to remember that reprimands like ‘no’ don’t teach your dog what you do want them to do.

Set your dog up to succeed by identifying what behaviors you do want your dog to do in place of the inappropriate ones, and work on teaching these behaviors instead. Make a point of putting away things you know that your dog will destroy, like your shoes, and dog-proof your home. Confine your dog into a safe dog proof area when you are out, or consider crate training.

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While it’s widely believed that dogs don’t experience emotions like guilt, more studies need to be done. Dogs seem to have complex emotions and body language; for example, panting can mean they are hot, happy, or stressed. This is why understanding your dog’s body language is so critical. Canines are sending out all kinds of signals when they are uncomfortable, but their humans aren’t picking up on them. This is when tragedies can occur.

Learn your dog’s body language, as this will help prevent misunderstandings and will build a stronger bond between you.

Featured Image Credit: Jaromir Chalabala, Shutterstock

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