This blog was prompted by a public disagreement that occurred when I was out having coffee. I was with Andrew and his dog Bella and the topic that caused the rumpus was: “Do dogs feel guilt?”

It was mid-morning and we were sitting outside on the café’s long veranda. At one point I asked Andrew whether Bella ever showed signs of guilt. His face became quizzical – how could a dog that never misbehaves feel guilty? I rephrased my question and he told me that he saw guilt as a sentiment limited to human beings.

Towards the end of our chat, as Andrew went to settle up – it was his turn – he asked me to hold Bella’s lead – for a few moments I would be responsible. She moved to sit in front of me and, for some reason, I decided to ask her a question – “Bella, do dogs feel guilt?” She looked bemused, cocked her head to one side but gave no indication of her opinion! I repeated my question and a man shouted from several tables away:  “No”, and seconds later “No, they certainly do not”. Clearly he had overheard my question and decided to come to Bella’s aid. Next, the women at a table behind me added “I agree – I’ve never known of dog guilt!”, to which her husband, whose head was buried in his newspaper muttered – “I agree”. No one else offered an opinion and when Andrew came back I thanked him for the coffee and told him that he was in the majority when it came to dog guilt. Soon after, I left him and Bella to walk home.

I should declare that my view is at odds with that of the veranda cognoscenti and it is a position that I (and Rohan) came to after years living with our pet dogs. It was with Daisy that I initially discovered that dogs – at least she – fully understood guilt and with Rosie my belief was recently reaffirmed.

Daisy, who was our dog for over eighteen years contributed to our children’s upbringing. Those earlier guilt ‘episodes’  occurred over forty years ago. Daisy was a bright, much loved, empathetic and mischievous mongrel and when she misbehaved – chewed a slipper, stole food from the table – she would respond to being told off in the same ‘guilty’ way. She stood with her head and shoulders lowered, her tail and ears drooped and her eyes doleful. She also managed to make herself look small – she seemed to want to be invisible

Importantly, she would take up the same stance even if she was not told off – she knew when she had done something wrong! One day, when we left her at home rather than take her out for her usual walk, she took exception. When we returned she did not rush up to greet us, rather, she stood at the end of the corridor in her ‘guilty’ pose. Knowing that she must have done something naughty we explored the house and discovered on our bedroom floor an upturned waste paper basket with its contents spread over the carpet.

Daisy knew she had behaved badly and her unprompted display of guilt is clearly evidence that the feeling of shame was part of her psyche. And she even assumed guilt when she was innocent. One of our sons had broken a pane of glass playing football in the house. All of them were sent to their rooms until someone owned up. As they trudged off, Daisy, in her guilty mode, was seen slowly walking to her basket.

The second episode involved Rosie who belongs to our youngest son and who we occasionally look after. Just a few weeks ago, when she was staying with us, I made some oatcakes. After they were baked I laid them out in rows to cool on a sideboard before putting them away in a cake tin. There were thirty-six cakes in all – I had counted them carefully – and when I came to collect them some ten minutes later all but eleven had gone. First I asked  Rohan if she had removed them but soon the real perpetrator was identified. Rosie was standing near her basket in the same ‘guilty’ way that Daisy had adopted over forty years earlier. Evidence that Rosie was indeed the guilty party soon became apparent –  bits of broken cake were found in her basket and on the floor nearby (see illustration).

People’s attitudes towards the behaviour of mammals have changed over the last sixty years, thanks mainly to the observations made by Jane Goodall who lived with chimpanzees for weeks on end. She controversially ascribed human characteristics to animals and argued that in many ways we human beings behave like them. Importantly, those close to animals have argued for years that pets such as dogs have feelings which once were thought of as the privilege of human beings. It is time for society at large to catch up!

The illustration shows a photo of all that remained of the twenty five oat cakes stolen by Rosie. The bits are in her basket and on the floor outside.

For helping me write this blog I would like to thank Andrea, Andrew, Bella, Rohan and Vivien.

13 thoughts on “The Guilty Party?

  1. Definitely agree with you, Joe. My Poodle, Quince, hates being told off, and acts in that same guilt -ridden way.He usually waits until the air has cleared, and then comes up to me later, and begins mounting a charm offensive; he might as well say, “Your hair looks nice, have you just been to the hairdressers?”
    Poodles, certainly, are so intelligent; it’s possible, I suppose, that not all dogs are bright enough to feel that way, not sure.


  2. I know exactly the ‘guilty look ‘ demeanour you describe Joe but am not too sure whether is is ‘guilt’ or simply the expectation of a telling off – when we had two dogs the bigger one (Murphy, a Labrador) would adopt the pose even when the little one (Finn, a Cocker Spaniel) was the one who had been naughty, knowing that a telling off was coming. Poor Murphy often took the blame because he simply looked guilty while the perpetrator Finn feigned ignorance !


    1. Dear Anis, Thank you for your comments. The problem is that, just as with human beings, interpreting expressions is often difficult. My belief is that pet owners will often know when their dogs are guilty ( as do the dogs themselves). Yours, Joe


  3. Dear Joe,
    I would say dogs definitely feel guilty or ashamed- whatever emotion we could ascribe to them. Many years ago I had a lovely boxer- Huckleberry. He once Left a large poo in the house when we had gone out and left him at home. The was probably not deliberate but when we came home, rather than bouncing up in his usual fashion he cowered in a corner- so I would say YES!




  4. Absolutely dogs have guilt in the same way they share our feelings, intuitive to when we are sad, happy or mad! When our dog Harley has been up to mischief he will become ‘invisible’ or look at you with big sheepish eyes, dog guilt or manipulation?!


    1. Dear Jacqui, First, welcome – I think this is your first comment. Second, from our various conversations I rather thought you would recognise that dogs felt guilt. Yours, Joe


  5. You should praise your son’s dog Rosie for her good taste. I have eaten your oatcakes and would vouch for their excellence.


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