Behaviorists: Dogs feel no shame despite the look
The next time you start shaking your finger and shouting "Shame on you!" because your dog chewed up your favorite fuzzy slippers, just remember that no matter how guilty your dog looks, it doesn't know what your rant is about.
Behaviorists insist dogs lack shame. The guilty look - head cowered, ears back, eyes droopy - is a reaction to the tantrum you are throwing now over the damage they did hours earlier.
"Just get over it and remind yourself not to put temptation in the way next time," said Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a professor at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine and executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
But scientific findings have not put a dent in the popularity of online dog shaming sites like dogshaming.com and shameyourpet.com or videos like those posted on youtube.com/crackrockcandy. In the photos and videos, dogs wear humorous written "confessions" and often are surrounded by the remnants of their misdeeds. There is no question that in some photos, they look guilty of eating, drinking, chewing, licking or destroying something they shouldn't have.
Dogshaming.com was the first and is among the most popular sites. Since Pascale Lemire started it in August 2012, it has received more than 58 million page views and more than 65,000 submissions. A submission has to come with a photo showing the dog's guilty look.
Lemire, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, also published a book called "Dog Shaming," which hit the New York Times best-seller list in January.
"I don't think dogs actually feel shame," Lemire said. "I think they know how to placate us with this sad puppy-dog look that makes us think they're ashamed of what they've done. My guess is that their thinking is: 'Oh man, my owner is super mad about something, but I don't know what, but he seems to calm down when I give him the sad face, so let's try that again.'"
One of the first scientific studies on the "guilty dog look" was conducted in 2009 by Alexandra Horowitz, an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College in New York City. One of her books, "Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know," included the findings.
In the study, she used 14 dogs, videotaping them in a series of trials and studying how they reacted when an owner left the room after telling them not to eat a treat. When the owners returned, sometimes they knew what the dogs had done and sometimes they didn't and sometimes the dogs had eaten the treats and sometimes they hadn't.
"I found that the 'look' appeared most often when owners scolded their dogs, regardless of whether the dog had disobeyed or did something for which they might or should feel guilty. It wasn't 'guilt' but a reaction to the owner that prompted the look," Horowitz said.
"I am not saying that dogs might not feel guilt, just that the 'guilty look' is not an indication of it," she added. She also believes there is a difference between guilt and shame.
Dogs can certainly learn from bad behavior, but rewards or punishment are most effective right after the wrongdoing, said Beaver, the veterinary professor. "The farther it gets from that, the less connection is made with the behavior," she said.
At some point, your dog will probably cower, waiting for you to complete your meltdown, ditch the negative voice and lose the nasty body language, Beaver said.
But you do wonder what other emotions dogs lack besides guilt.
"Humans have a natural desire to know what an animal is thinking, and yet we are limited to reading body language and measuring physiological reactions," Beaver said. The bottom line is: "We will never truly know because we cannot ask them."
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