It can sure seem like your dog feels guilty when he cowers after chewing up one of your slippers, but what’s really going on in his brain? We certainly like to imagine that our dogs feel joy, guilt, sadness, and love – and this tendency to attribute human emotions to non-human animals is called anthropomorphizing.
An experiment designed by Alexandra Horowitz set out to examine the feeling of guilt in dogs. One study has shown that 74% of dog owners believe their canines feel guilty, an emotion easily identifiable by body language. The study (see the link for details) determined that the “guilty” body language of dogs occurred in reaction to the human’s action, whether the dog was guilty of doing anything wrong or not. Therefore, the perceived emotion of the dog was not guided by an understanding of right and wrong; rather, the dog chose to act submissively and non-threatening to avoid punishment by the human.
Studies like this one can hold implications for our relationships with our canines. Our love for our dogs is based on a certain level of mutual understanding. On our part, getting a sense of what our dogs understand, what they may be feeling, and what they will react to can increase that mutual understanding and allow for better communication and training.