What emotions do dogs feel?
We commonly see videos on the internet of people 'shaming' their dogs for a behaviour, accompanied by caption 'guilty', but can dogs feel guilt or shame?
The short answer is no. Whilst dogs do have emotions, they do not feel complex emotions such as guilt, shame and pride.
As with young children, dogs will clearly have certain emotions, but much fewer emotions than we find in adults. This is because complex social emotions, that have elements that must be learned, don’t appear until later in the child’s development. Shame and pride take more than three years to appear, while guilt even longer, appearing around six months after these. A child must be nearly four years of age before it feels contempt.
This developmental sequence is the key to understanding the emotions of dogs. Dogs go through their developmental stages much more quickly than humans do, and have all of the emotional range that they will ever achieve by the time they are four to six months of age. At this point, a dog will be capable of feeling the same emotions as a child ages 2 and a half. This means that a dog will have all of the basic emotions like fear, anger, joy, disgust and even love, however according to current research it seems unlikely that your dog will have more complex emotions like guilt, pride and shame.
So why does my dog look guilty when I come home and they have destroyed something?
So you come home from being out for dinner, and see that your dog has chewed up your Xbox controller (thanks Bandit!). No matter what you do, you cannot hide how angry you are internally, and your body language/demeanour will change. The dog has learned that when you arrive home and see something chewed up, your body language, posture, expression and tone changes. What you then see is his fear - even if you have never punished him, as to a dog appearing angry is punishment enough.
As a dog’s emotions are similar to that of a younger child it’s important to treat them always with the greatest respect. Understand like us they experience fear, so think if you are doing something that is causing unnecessary stress, then please stop.