“I was sure she knew she did wrong by the look of guilt on her face when I got home.” How often I hear clients utter such words in reference to some misdeeds that their hapless dogs have done. I was thinking about this the other day as I was reading through some reviews of the latest studies on “dog guilt”. In one study of note, Julie Hecht led an experiment where dogs were told by their owners to “leave” a treat alone, whereupon they were left alone in the room. In some of the cases, the dogs ate the cookie, while in other cases the experimenters took the cookies from them. In both cases, the owners decided that their dogs actually looked guilty. It is surmised that this “guilty” look is actually an appeasement gesture – an attempt to prevent the other individual from remaining angry at them or (potentially) injuring or leaving them.
I have no scientific basis for this, other than to reference an article that stated that the average dog has the intelligence of a 2-year-old child, but I tend to think that toddlers and dogs are pretty much on par as far as true “guilt” is concerned. Recently, our daughter scribbled with crayon (fortunately the easily soluble type) all over the floor. Proud of her handiwork, her happiness quickly turned to that “guilty” look as soon as she saw that I was upset. Did she know she had done wrong? Was she feeling guilty? Well, if history tells, I would say, most likely not, considering she did it again a week later, and proudly stated “Shelby draws” as I took a breath and went to clean it up again (with a mental note to hide the crayons when I can’t be supervising the art project!) Thus, I question whether a child of 2 years has the depth of conception to purposely do something bad and then actually feel “guilty” about it, any more than the family dog.
Emotions are complicated, after all. According to Your Child’s Growing Mind by Jane Healy, ”intellectual and emotional development are inseparable.” And while one study showed that dogs may show empathy to crying people – something that 2-year-old children have also been known to do – this is still a long way from the more complex emotions such as guilt.
I understand that it makes *us*, the “wronged” ones, feel better when we believe that the other individual feels guilty for what they have done – disobeyed us, left a mess for us to clean, destroyed a cherished item. But this does not mean that the guilt is really there. And when all’s said and done, the most important thing is not just what we believe, but how we act. Thus, even if you insist on believing that your dog or 2-year-old child feels guilty for knocking over and breaking your crystal vase, what matters is your response to the event. Will you choose to clean it up and make a mental note not to leave expensive things within reach? Or will you punish the wrongdoer after the fact, for something that they may not quite understand? I don’t profess to know the answer, but it is worth considering the options.