Why your dog doesn't feel guilty... even when he looks like this! Experts say sad eyes and wrinkled brows aren't evidence of contrition at all
- Owners post hilarious ‘dog shaming’ images?showing pets looking guilty
- But?experts say ‘guilty’ expressions aren't evidence of feelings of contrition
- They say sad eyes, wrinkled brows and averted eyes aren't signs of shame
- Dr Susan Hazel say they are evidence of how dogs have adapted to living with humans over thousands of years
Experts say ‘guilty’ expressions from digs aren't evidence of feelings of contrition at all
They are some of the funniest — and sometimes most excruciating — pictures on the internet: the ‘dog shaming’ images posted by owners when their beloved mutts have been particularly naughty.
There’s Dottie, wearing a label round her neck that reads: ‘I ate my mum’s new iPad — and my dad’s phone.’ Or Pippin, the terrier cross, looking at the camera next to a label saying: ‘I stole two biscuits from Grandma.’ Dottie looks guilty, as does the yellow Labrador in another picture sitting in a pile of rubbish with the label: ‘I did this.’
Some of the videos posted online feature dogs with contrite expressions. Usually, these start with owners saying something like: ‘Did you do this?’ or even ‘Bad dog’ in a cross tone of voice. The pets respond by lifting a paw imploringly, avoiding their owner’s eyes or hiding behind chairs.
You may have seen that guilty look on the face of your own dog, when you get back home and discover that the nice piece of ham you were saving for supper has disappeared from the kitchen surface. Your dog appears guilty, and you hope when you scold him he won’t ever do it again.
I’ve never forgotten the face of Finnigan, my childhood pet, when we realised the roast chicken for my birthday dinner had been pulled off the table onto the kitchen floor. His ears drooped, he couldn’t look us in the eye and he slunk off to his bed. In fact, he looked so comical that we laughed, picked up the chicken, sliced off the nibbled bits and ate what was left.
But while pictures of hangdog pets might convince us they have seen the error of their ways, experts now say that ‘guilty’ expressions are not evidence of feelings of contrition at all.
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Hilarious ‘dog shaming’ images posted by owners when their beloved mutts have been particularly naughty are popular and often show pets with 'guilty' expressions?
‘There have been a number of studies, and it’s pretty clear that dogs don’t feel or display guilt,’ says veterinary scientist Dr Susan Hazel of the University of Adelaide. ‘It’s not the way their brains work.’
Those sad eyes, wrinkled brows, and averted eyes are not signs of shame. The owners are just failing to read signs of distress and anxiety from being chastised.
Dr Hazel also suggests a dog’s ability to look apologetic for an angry owner is actually evidence of how they have adapted to living with humans over thousands of years. In other words, dogs know to keep their meal ticket happy.
‘Dogs will show appeasement-like behaviour that some owners interpret as guilt,’ she says. ‘They will also react to the person’s body language, as dogs are absolute geniuses at picking up what we think before even we know it.’
So if it’s true that dogs don’t feel guilt or shame, do they experience any emotions at all, or are they just furry robots in search of the next meal?
Pippin, the terrier cross, looking at the camera next to a label saying: ‘I stole two biscuits from Grandma’
Professor Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist and expert in emotions, believes all warm-blooded animals have seven main emotions hard-wired into their brains — they feel fear, anger, lust, maternal care, social loneliness, playfulness and happiness when they get what they want. He calls these the primary emotions.
‘We humans can experience guilt, shame, embarrassment, jealousy, hate and contempt as well as pride and loyalty,’ he says. But he calls these emotions ‘secondary’. They involve complicated thoughts about right and wrong, or social status.
Some psychologists call them the ‘moral emotions’. Dogs don’t have moral ideas. Or so most scientists think.
‘We definitely know that dogs feel emotions,’ says Elaine Henley, an animal behaviourist and lecturer in Scotland. ‘But we can only read the physical signs of what they feel. Everything else is guesswork. Emotions like guilt and jealousy are human ideas. We don’t know if animals feel them and must be careful about attributing human emotions to dogs.
‘The dogs in the videos don’t understand they have done wrong, so can’t be shamed into good behaviour. Often, they are just as likely to go and do the same thing again.
‘There have been a number of studies, and it’s pretty clear that dogs don’t feel or display guilt,’ says veterinary scientist Dr Susan Hazel (pictured with Labrador Fergus) of the University of Adelaide
‘So when they look guilty, they are reacting to their owner’s behaviour — the tone of voice, the gestures, maybe even the way their owner’s smell. They may even be able to smell anger.’
So, even if you are convinced your dog does feel guilt and shame, scientists are increasingly challenging this belief.
‘If that guilty look is really an expression of contrition, they would only show it when they have done wrong. But that’s not the case,’ says Ljerka Ostojic, a research associate at Cambridge University and dog trainer who has been investigating doggy ‘guilt’.
She and other Cambridge scientists set out to discover if owners were right to believe that the guilty look was a sign that a dog had been naughty.
The owners taught their dogs not to eat a biscuit within their reach, so while they were in the room the dog wouldn’t eat it. Then the owners left the room, and either another person conducting the experiment removed the biscuit, or encouraged the dog to eat it.
WHAT THOSE REACTIONS MEAN
Licking his lips: ‘I’m feeling stressed.’
Turning his head away from his owner: ‘I feel threatened. Please move away.’
Beginning to shake: ‘I’m frightened. Is he going to punish me?’
Slinking away: ‘I’m really frightened. I’m going to get out of here.’
When the owner went back into the room and saw the biscuit gone, they had to decide from the look on the dog’s face whether it had been eaten or not. They couldn’t do so.
Is that because we are no good at reading pet emotions, or because the emotion we are looking for simply isn’t there?
Ljerka Ostojic says: ‘I had a client who had three dogs and whenever something happened like a shoe was chewed, it was always one of them that had the guilty look.
‘Yet often she was not the dog who had done it. She was just the most timid dog, and got frightened more quickly by her owner’s reaction.’
Getting angry with our dogs when we think they’ve done something wrong, in the hope of making them feel ashamed, could ruin our relationship with them.
Graham Thompson, a clinical dog behaviourist, is often called in to help when dogs that are berated end up biting their angry owners.
Buster, a border collie, was typical. Told off for stealing then playing with the TV remote, he cowered when his owner found out.
The phenomenon gained traction after an official dog-shaming Tumblr site was launched in August 2012?
The owner believed this meant Buster knew he had done wrong. As Buster had no toys, nothing much to do, and very little attention from his owner, he stole the remote again. This time, his owner felt even more sure that Buster knew he was doing wrong, so he told him off even more.
Now Buster was expecting to get punished, so he cowered even more. And the more he cowered, the angrier his owner got, until Buster was petrified with fear. Finally, when his owner found him with the TV remote yet again and tried to take it off him, Buster finally snapped and bit him.
‘This vicious circle happens because the owner doesn’t realise his dog is so frightened. All those signs — the head turning, the slinking away, the trembling — show the dog is picking up on the owner’s reaction. They are reading their gestures, or their tone of voice.’ What they are not feeling, however, is guilt or shame.
The obvious answer to a dog that keeps taking the remote control is either to give him a toy that resembles one, or provide distractions and interaction so he doesn’t seek out something else play with.
Sadly, many owners don’t have much idea about what their dog is feeling, or how their mind works. So, don’t be unfair to your pet. Yes, he may have stolen some food, but that is what dogs do if they get the chance. Just make sure you put the food out of his reach next time.
And if you love him and want him to feel happy, beware of scolding him. It won’t work. He’s just being a dog.
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