You Know The Look, But Do Dogs Really Feel Guilt?

Have you ever arrived home to a mess and there, smack in the middle of the crime scene, sits your beloved dog, head bowed and eyes averted? If you haven’t experienced it yourself, you’ve probably seen this scenario play out through a humorous video shared on social media. Is that an unmistakable look of guilt you see on pup’s face?

It’s a common belief among us pet owners that our dogs can experience feelings of guilt. But is there any truth to this assumption, or are we simply projecting our own emotions onto our furry companions?

Understanding Canine Emotions

The Emotional Spectrum of Dogs

Before we tackle the question of guilt, it’s essential to understand the emotional capabilities of dogs. Dogs have a rich emotional life. They can experience basic emotions such as joy, fear, anger, and even love. These are primal emotions, evident in a dog’s everyday interactions.

However, it is important to note that the emotional spectrum of dogs is not as complex as ours. Research suggests that a dog’s emotional intelligence can be compared to that of a 2 to 2.5-year-old human child. This means that while dogs are capable of feeling a range of emotions, they may not experience complex emotions, such as guilt, pride, or shame.

That said, this doesn’t mean that dogs don’t react to situations where they’ve done something wrong. It’s just that their reactions might not stem from guilt.

The Guilty Look – What Does It Mean?

So, if dogs don’t feel guilt, why do they look guilty? This is where things get interesting. The guilty look that we often interpret as a sign of remorse is, in fact, a response to our behavior and not a reflection of their inner emotional state.

When you find your favorite pair of shoes chewed up and your dog gives you that guilty look, it’s not because they feel bad about the act. More likely, they are reacting to your tone of voice, body language, or simply because they’ve learned that displaying such behavior can alleviate an unpleasant situation.

This phenomenon is known as ‘learned helplessness,’ where dogs learn over time that certain behaviors, like looking guilty, can prevent or reduce the severity of punishment.

The Science Behind The ‘Guilty’ Look

What Does The Research Say?

Scientific studies conducted over the years have aimed to understand the guilty look in dogs. One such study conducted by Alexandra Horowitz from Barnard College in New York involved owners instructing their dogs not to eat a treat, then leaving the room. Some dogs obeyed while others did not. When the owners returned, regardless of whether the dogs had eaten the treat or not, the dogs were confronted. Dogs that were scolded showed more signs of the ‘guilty look,’ regardless of whether they had actually disobeyed the command.

The study concluded that the ‘guilty look’ is not necessarily a sign of guilt. Instead, it’s more likely a response to the owner’s reaction.

A Dog’s Emotional Intelligence

While dogs might not feel guilt like we do, this doesn’t mean they’re not emotionally intelligent. In fact, dogs are incredibly good at reading human emotions and responding to them. They can pick up on subtle cues in our behavior, tone of voice, and body language, which allows them to respond in ways that often seem emotionally in tune with us.

So, when your dog looks guilty, remember that they’re not necessarily feeling guilty. Instead, they’re communicating with you in one of the few ways they know how. They’re reacting to your behavior, responding to your emotions, and trying their best to appease you.


While dogs are capable of a rich array of emotions, science suggests that complex feelings like guilt seem to be beyond their emotional reach. Instead, the guilty look that’s so familiar to us dog owners is likely a reaction to our behavior and not an indication of their inner emotional state.

Understanding this doesn’t make our dogs any less incredible or emotionally intelligent. In fact, it just goes to show how attuned they are to our feelings and how deeply they care about our reactions. And isn’t that just another reason why we love our dogs so much?

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