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  • Writer's pictureHelen Richardson

Can Dogs Feel Guilt?

Dogs jump with joy when we come home from work. They cry or whimper when we leave them, and growl when they feel threatened. So it's obvious to those of us who love them that they have emotions. Yet there are people who deny what is obvious to those of us who love our dogs. This denial stretches far back in history.


Back in the 17th Century philosopher/mathematician René Descartes believed dogs operated on an almost mechanical basis, using their muscles, bones, and joints much like a machine uses gears and pulleys. Most likely he was influenced by the religious thought of the day that put forth the belief that dogs have no emotions or feelings. While this may have appeared to be a scientific thought, in the ensuing four centuries that have passed, modern science has proved them wrong.


It is now common knowledge that dogs not only have brain structures that give them the capacity to feel emotions, they have the hormones to stimulate them. Science has also discovered that just as we do, dogs produce oxytocin, the hormone that helps them feel affection. What this means, as any dog guardian will attest to, is that our dogs are capable of feeling and expressing joy, fear, anger, and what we like to believe is love.


Now we understand that dogs learn in two different ways. Classical conditioning is when a dog has an autonomic response to a cue in the environmennt. Examples are excitement when you pick up the leash, salivating when a can is opened etc.


The other way dogs learn is through Operant conditioning. This conditioning


What does this finding mean for dog guardians if you come home and find that your dog has left a deposit on the hallway floor or torn up a cushion? If you yell at him, and he cowers or whimpers, it is not because he feels guilt, but rather has a fear of punishment. So if your first instinct is to yell at the dog, you may instill a negative emotion like fear or anger which could, at some point, result in aggression.


Yelling may work in the case of certain behaviors, but it also produces side effects that you probably do not intend. In addition, it only works when you are there to witness the behavior. In other words, it is reactive. What you really want to do is take a proactive approach that removes the need or the temptation. Let's take a look at two examples of preventing unwanted dog behavior proactively.


Counter Surfing


If your dog sniffs around the counter or worse yet, jumps on it in search of goodies, yes, you could spray him with water. But wouldn't it be better to remove the temptation and keep the counter clean, so he's never tempted. And if you never feed him food scraps, he won't develop a preference for people's food.



Bathroom Accidents


To prevent bathroom accidents, take the time to share a nice long walk before you leave for work. Aside from the biological function break this provides, it will tire him out. After all, who can dispute the fact that a sleeping dog is a good dog?




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