The Verdict Is In: Not Guilty!

Categories: Dog Emotions

By Jennifer Lueck

The topic of whether animals have emotions is surprisingly controversial. It may be hard to believe, but some veterinarians, scientists and philosophers still argue that only humans have emotions. In the introduction to For the Love of a Dog, Patricia McConnell explains her thoughts on the subject: “Dogs evoke emotions in us as if wringing water out of a sponge, and so discussions about whether they have emotions themselves seems like arguments about whether there’s a sun in the sky.” I agree with her. To me, it seems like a given that dogs have rich emotional lives that we are blessed to share with them.

Among those of us who believe animals have emotions, there is yet another debate about which emotions animals feel. While it is commonly accepted that dogs feel disgust, fear, anger and happiness, there is much debate about the more complex emotions of jealousy, sympathy and guilt. McConnell believes dogs do feel jealousy and sympathy but she, like most positive reinforcement dog trainers, does not believe they feel guilt. Feeling guilt requires an understanding of our moral code, which dogs simply do not have, therefore they cannot know when they have done something wrong. To demonstrate this, imagine yourself walking your dog late at night. There’s no one else around. While you’re walking, you find a $100 bill. You pick it up and put it in your pocket without trying to find the owner. Most people would feel extremely guilty by this because it would feel like stealing from the person who lost it. If a dog found a $100 bill, he wouldn’t think twice about it. To him, it’s just a piece of paper floating in the breeze. Suppose the dog has a penchant for eating paper and eats the $100. Surely he wouldn’t feel anything but satisfaction at finding an unexpected treat. He doesn’t feel guilty because he doesn’t understand that it’s wrong to take what belongs to someone else and he doesn’t understand the concept of money or what things are worth. To demonstrate this further, think about bringing your dog to Petco. I bet he wouldn’t hesitate to steal a rawhide off the shelf, but I know you would! You know stealing is wrong; your dog doesn’t. (He probably thinks Petco has a free buffet!)

Here’s another scenario that might be closer to your own experience. You arrive home from work and find that your dog has raided the garbage again. You are very angry and your dog’s guilty expression makes you even madder. You’ve scolded him for this many times. He knows better! But does he? Let’s look at it from the dog’s perspective. After his morning nap, the dog wakes up and feels bored. He can smell a wonderful snack in the kitchen garbage, so he proceeds to knock over the can and scatter the garbage all over the kitchen in search of the good stuff. When he’s done, he heads off to the living room for another nap. A few hours later you come home, you see the mess, he sees your face and he is scared. He instantly assumes a submissive posture to appease your anger. But why is he scared? He has learned that when you come home and make that face, he is not safe. He doesn’t associate your angry expression with the fun he had with the garbage. Or he has learned that when you come home and there is garbage on the floor, he will be punished. But he doesn’t really understand why you are upset. To a dog, garbage on the floor is a good thing! The sad thing is that he associates your arrival home with bad things happening to him. Is that what we want?

Dogs do things that we consider to be wrong because they are fun, they feel good or they taste good. They continue to do them, despite your scolding, because they are reinforcing. He sits on the sofa when you’re not home because it’s comfortable. He chews shoes to relieve boredom and satisfy his urge to chew. He goes potty on the rug because he’s not completely potty trained and he feels relief when he goes. He raids the garbage because there are good things in it and it’s fun to do. Believing that a dog feels guilty about these things implies he knows they are wrong and does them anyway. This thinking leads people to feel that their dogs are bad, spiteful and mean, when in reality that are just being dogs.

Ever since I attended Patricia McConnell’s seminar in March on “The Emotional Life of Dogs,” I’ve asked myself many times if it really matters if dogs have emotions. I’ve concluded that the answer is yes! Believing that dogs feel love and sympathy strengthens the bond we have with them because it means they can love us as much as we love them. When we lose someone close to us, they can grieve with us and that gives us comfort. Believing they feel anger and fear can help us protect them from the things that make them angry or afraid. But believing they feel guilt can seriously damage the relationship we have with our dogs and can have serious consequences for the dog. In The Culture Clash, Jean Donaldson says, “As soon as you bestow intelligence and morality, you bestow the responsibility that goes along with them. In other words, if the dog knows it’s wrong to destroy furniture yet deliberately and maliciously does it, remembers the wrong he did and feels guilt, it feels like he merits a punishment, doesn’t it?” She goes on to say, “And the saddest thing is that the main association most dogs have with that punishment is the presence of their owner.”

Here’s the good news: with a slight change of perspective, we realize that the dog is doing what is natural to him, and perhaps we are the guilty party for setting the dog up for failure. Instead of saying, “No! Bad dog!” the next time your dog chews your shoe, try, “Oops! I shouldn’t have left my shoes lying around.” Think back to the garbage can scenario. Why did the dog have access to the kitchen garbage in the first place? If the dog raids the garbage often, wouldn’t it be wise to move the garbage to a place out of the dog’s reach? The key is to manage the dog’s environment so he cannot practice the behaviors humans consider to be wrong. Set him up for success and he will have no need to feel guilty or scared, only happy and loving!

The Culture Clash, Jean Donaldson
For the Love of a Dog, Patricia McConnell
Positive Perspectives, Pat Miller
The Power of Positive Dog Training, Pat Miller