My Dogs Don’t Act Guilty

Chase Little Bed
Chase Little Bed

I am one of those odd people who think that dogs don’t feel guilt. I think guilt is a human emotion. I am more of the mind that the dogs know Safe and Dangerous. And when you come home and your dog has gotten into the garbage and scattered it around, and he cowers… it’s not guilt. He just knows that you coming home with garbage scattered around is dangerous because you might explode for no reason that he can understand.

(oh and this is Chase trying to fit in the teeny dog bed I got for Jet. LOL)

Jet is in his chewing age now… he’s six months old and that’s to be expected. We do not, ever, get mad or punish him for chewing. Ever. We don’t do that with any of our dogs. We just direct him to something more productive. I do want him to know that some things are off limits, like cardboard displays or chairs or furniture, but I just push him away, tell him Leave It, and give him a bone that is a good thing for him to chew.

Lucy has Mega-esophagus and often regurgitates quite a bit. She is also pretty incontinent and will pee accidentally while she is laying down if we don’t take her out frequently.  But Lucy never, ever acts guilty for either of these acts.  I believe it’s because we have never punished the dogs for there being pee on the floor, or poop, or throw up… or the act of any of these.  So none of the dogs think these things are dangerous in any way and don’t show the ‘guilt’ signs that people interpret as guilt… but I interpret that the dog is afraid of something dangerous might happen.

I’m very proud of this.  I don’t want my dogs to think there are things dangerous in the world… mainly me or my husband.  I want them to feel safe at home. We train in other ways. We encourage success. We DO set boundaries and limits and the dogs have good manners.  But a growing puppy needs to chew, an incontinent dog is going to have accidents.  These are not reasons to punish… actually, there are not really any good reasons to punish. 🙂  Redirect, encourage, and set up for success. I love positive training!

8 thoughts on “My Dogs Don’t Act Guilty”

  1. Cynthia, I could not agree more. One of the things I always envied about the dogs I lost recently was their complete lack of fear and total trust in us. We had them both since they were 7 weeks and they trusted us completely. I envied that since I could not imagine trusting anyone so completely (except my dog :)) One of the issues I’m dealing with now is Axl’s fear and lack of trust. It breaks my heart to see. But he is coming around and I think it will just be a matter of time before he trusts us completely, I just don’t know if he’ll ever trust the outside world 🙁
    .-= Flo´s last blog ..The anatomy of an fight =-.

  2. Dear Cynthia:
    Thank you for making this point about guilt and “guilt signs.” I think you are largely correct about a dog’s expression of guilt being behavioral and not fundamental or reflective of an actual emotion in the way we understand human beings feel guilt. How often in my neighborhood dog run in Manhattan do I see dogs desperately trying to “read” their owners and then behaving in some way they think meets what is expected of them. If only these owners did the same kind of “reading” of their dogs as you clearly do with yours.
    .-= Randolph´s last blog ..Help Desk – A Tuesday Diversion =-.

  3. I have to say I admire your patience. I don’t know if I would be able to have your resolve when our own dog does something he shouldn’t have. I give him a stern verbal rebuke usually OUT.

    However, I’m not so sure about your dogs-don’t-feel-guilt argument. If you brought up children the same way they wouldn’t feel guilt either.

    In order to feel guilt you have to a have some idea of what is right or wrong and you have to learn that from others. It isn’t something that we have automatically. It becomes ingrained through interaction with other people.

    We may be the apex predator but we are still animals even if we don’t always like to think so.

    The problem we have is anthropomorphism. Dog’s don’t necessarily try to ‘read’ their owners, they just smell us. They smell our emotions.

    I recently wrote an article on dogs. I would be delighted if you would give it the once over.

    1. Hi Joseph.
      Well… children and dogs are entirely different species. I do teach my dogs what is acceptable behavior and what is not. I use positive reinforcement to do so. They will be told no if necessary.

      You are assuming that human children and dogs think and interpret the world in the same way. That, actually, is anthropomorphism. Dogs do not interpret actions the same way kids do.

      So if I punish my puppy for jumping the baby gates, he will never think that his behavior is ‘wrong’. He will only realize that jumping the baby gates is dangerous. But when no one is home, it’s safe to still do so. Because dogs don’t have a sense of right and wrong.

      This is actually a very common dog training error. People don’t understand why their dogs will continue to jump on the couch, shred the garbage, and jump baby gates, when no one is home. But not do it when someone is home. It’s the Save v Dangerous issue. 🙂

      I love my dogs for who they are, and I love that they are different from humans… actually, that’s why I love them!

  4. Hi Cynthia,

    Excellent argument. There is nothing like good debate.

    I still maintain that guilt is a learned emotion much like jealousy but I enjoyed your post and your comment. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    I agree with you about my response towards my dog. I will have to change my habits.

    As for anthropomorphism I can’t help it. I am a human too!


    [P.S. sometimes your captcha doesn’t work very well. I see that you use a WordPress blog. There is a plugin called no captcha that works just as good at blocking spam. Sorry it is actually called wp captcha free.]

  5. I have a rescue Labrador called Daisy who has a night time party trick. If she can get a box of eggs in the kitchen (cardboard carton) she will take the box into the living room and remove all the eggs without breaking them and then chew the box to bits.
    When we get up she sits at the bottom of the stairs with her tail banging the floor. Sometimes we can’t find what she thinks she has done wrong. Is this guilt or fear? Not knowing her history before we had her 4 years ago I dont know. However our other Labrador, Barney shows no signs of guilt or anything else no matter what he has done. We have had him since a pup.

  6. Hi,

    First time visitor here.

    After reading this article I thought it was so nice to see someone that doesn’t needlessly anthropomorphise dogs.

    Yes, your dog will cower if it suspects you are about to explode over something, but no, this is definitely not anything related to human guilt. The dog is just afraid that a member of its pack is about to attack. The ears down, tail down, lip licking type behaviour you see is just a dog trying (in dog terms) to appease a threat.

    Dogs that have been beaten and don’t understand why, tend to become vicious (in self defence) and this can often end in the dog being destroyed. Such a shame. With a little understanding that a dog is a dog and not a human being with fur, all this can be avoided.
    .-= Dangerous Dogs´s last blog ..Dangerous Dogs – In the Media =-.

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