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Does My Dog Know When It Did Something Wrong?

November 08, 2021

Does my dog know if he did wrong?

Peed carpet; chewed shoes; missing pair of socks; chewed tissue scraps on the bathroom floor. Sounds familiar? Every pet owner knows this! It's funny because no matter how our furry friends do something crazy, we still love them. As a pet owner myself, I remember one time when my dog Asher peed himself on our living room, and my first reaction was to call him, saying, "Get back here." Asher hesitantly went to me with those beady eyes, begging for me to forgive him. At that moment, I knew that he felt he had done something wrong.

However, it got me thinking: does my dog really realize that he did something wrong? Is my dog capable of feeling guilty? So, I immediately looked it up and got unexpected answers. If you are a pet owner yourself and are super curious about what's going on with your dog's mind, then keep reading!

Do dogs feel guilty?

According to Alexandra Horowitz, a canine expert and psychologist at Columbia University's Dog Cognition Lab: a dog's "guilty" response when caught by his owner doing unwanted stuff is actually a learned behavior - it doesn't mean he knows what he did wrong. 

A dog feels submissive because his owner caught him doing something that his owner gets angry about. In short, we may think that our dogs have "guilt feelings" and are aware of what they did wrong, but in reality, they are just responding to our angry expression. According to Horowitz, most dogs behaved the same way when their owners expressed anger and displeasure, regardless of whether they did or did not do anything wrong. 

Does my dog know when he's done wrong?

I also found another interesting fact. According to vcahospitals.com, "Pets focus on the basic requirements for survival." This behavior explains why my dog Asher eats the leftover food on the table or pees on the sofa! (I bet you had a similar experience too!) It's not that he wants to anger me, but rather, this is his way of surviving. Back in the days when pets aren't domesticated yet, they did everything to survive and fulfill their basic needs. My dog sees an accessible treat, and he eats it. That's how nature works!

How do I know if my dog feels guilt or fear?

Our dogs feel a lot of things when we get angry at them. As responsible pet owners, it is helpful to remember that when we say a dog looks guilty, he is instead displaying behaviors of fear, stress and anxiety such as:

  • tucked tail
  • visible whites in the eyes
  • cowering posture
  • yawning
  • licking
  • flattened ears
  • avoiding eye contact

So, is there a way to make my dog learn?

Absolutely! Pets can eventually learn from right or wrong. We just have to teach them. (Patience, please!) Since dogs are fast learners, we must be consistent in teaching the things they should do and those they should not. Consistent and timely responses to their actions will eventually create a pattern that allows them to associate a particular behavior with a consequence. Remember, a timely response is needed if you want your dog to learn. (I've been doing this for a few months now, and Asher is no longer peeing on the sheets. I'm a proud momma!) Another thing, if your dog ate something he shouldn't, tell him a firm "No!" immediately, without waiting for minutes or hours to call him out.

Should I consider training my dog?

Dog owners who take the time to train their pups regularly know that dogs can eventually learn appropriate behavior over time. In my personal experience, I've trained my dog not to pee on the sofa by telling him "no" every time he does it. Aside from that, I give my dog a treat when he obeys me. It doesn't happen overnight, though; it took months of consistently telling him and rewarding him after, but the training was worth it. I hope that you and your dog can learn new things together too! I promise this experience will not only let your dog learn something new but will also intensify your connection with them. 

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