Canine Cognition: Are Dogs Capable of Feeling Guilty?

Three Simple Reasons Why Dogs Don’t Feel Guilt

I Didn't Mean to Do It!

“We Don’t Know If Dogs Feel Guilt, So Stop Saying They Don’t”

In a May 22, 2016 post at Dr. Marc Bekoff writes, “According to Dr. Susan Hazel, a veterinary scientist at the University of Adelaide, ‘There have been a number of studies, and it’s pretty clear that dogs don’t feel or display guilt. It’s not the way their brains work.’”

Bekoff rightly disagrees. “There are no studies that show that ‘dogs don't feel or display guilt.’ And, surely, there have been no neuroimaging studies that focus on guilt. So, we really don't know if dogs feel guilt … existing data do not tell us that dogs do not feel guilt...”

Let me just say, unequivocally, that I don’t think dogs feel guilt, ever, under any circumstances. In my mind, there’s no possible way they could.

And here are three simple reasons why.

Knowing the Difference Between Right and Wrong

In order for someone to feel guilty about something they’ve done, thought about, or felt, they first have to know the difference between right and wrong. In other words, they have to have at least a rudimentary sense of morality, which since it involves the potential for doing physical or emotional harm to another being, it also requires a sense of self-and-other. And in order to have a sense of self-and-other, you first have to have an awareness of your self, which dogs don’t have. (See more on this in the next section.)

As for understanding the difference between right and wrong, human children don’t generally develop an ability to label things, persons, or events as “bad” or “good” until about age 4. They can talk about these differences—something dogs can’t do—but a true understanding of them is still outside their grasp. By around age 7 a child’s view of right and wrong is based more on a fear of punishment than on a general understanding of the moral principles involved. It’s only when they’re 9 years old that they truly understand the “Golden Rule,” and can apply it to themselves and to the behaviors of others.

Is this important?

It may be, it may not. But Dr. Stanley Coren was written at length about the cognitive differences between dogs and children. He places a dog’s intelligence at about the same level as that of a three-year-old. If this is accurate (and I think it’s far too generous), then dogs would have no capacity to understand “good” and “bad” (4 years in kids) or “right” and “wrong” (7 – 9 years of age). And if dogs don’t know the difference between right and wrong then they can’t feel guilty or know that they’ve “done something wrong,”

So why do some dogs “act” guilty when they’ve done something wrong?

Much of the misunderstandings Bekoff complains about can be traced back to a study done by Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College. In that study, known as The Guilty Look, the look in question took place most often when the dog was actually innocent rather than when he or she had actually done something “wrong.” Many people have misinterpreted this to mean that dogs aren’t capable of feeling guilt when, in fact, that idea was never part of the experimental protocols.

Still, that doesn’t definitively prove that dogs aren’t capable of feeling guilty right?

No, but there is very clear research showing which neural substrates in the human brain “light up” when we feel guilt, shame, embarrassment, and other emotions.

What Are Neural Substrates?

Neural substrates are parts of the brain or nervous system that facilitate a specific set of behaviors, psychological responses, or emotional states.

Numerous papers have been published on the neural substrates of guilt, shame, etc. These substrates have been identified with some degree of accuracy through fMRI data (fMRI is short for functional magnetic resonance imaging). An fMRI machine is designed to measure brain activity, in real time, by detecting changes in cerebral blood flow that are coupled with the activity of neurons in certain, specific areas of the brain, areas that “light up” when a test subject feels guilt, shame, or other emotions. These lighted areas contain a number of voxels (they’re like three-dimensional pixels). The more voxels in a certain area, the more likelihood that there’s some sort of brain activity going on there.

Scientists researching the nature of guilt, etc., have, for the most part, agreed on which parts of the brain light up when a subject is feeling these emotions. For instance, Takahashi et al (2004), write: “Both guilt and embarrassment conditions commonly activated the medial prefrontal cortex …, left posterior superior temporal sulcus …, and visual cortex [of the brain]. Compared to guilt condition, embarrassment condition produced greater activation in the right temporal cortex (anterior), bilateral hippocampus, and visual cortex. Most of these regions have been implicated in the neural substrate of social cognition or Theory of Mind (ToM). Our results support the idea that both are self-conscious emotions, which are social emotions requiring the ability to represent the mental states of others.”

So the next question is, do dogs have the capacity to form internal representations of the mental states of others, which is the highest of the three levels of a Theory of Mind?

It’s extremely doubtful. In fact, at present, there are no scientific data showing that dogs are capable of even having the most rudimentary level of Theory of Mind.

Three Levels of the Theory of Mind

The three levels to a ToM are 1) sensory, 2) emotional, and 3) cognitive. The first—the one we’re concerned with here—requires that dogs have the ability to know that other beings have the same capacities to process sensory information—to hear, see, smell, touch, and taste things the way they do—while at the same time recognizing that other dogs, cats, or humans may have different perspectives. For instance, if you and I were talking and I were to express surprise and point behind you, you would either ask, “What is it?” or you would turn around to see what I saw. On the other hand, if you point at something behind a dog, the dog will usually scan the area in front of him instead of following where you point.

In a December 2010 blog post PsychologyTodaycom blogger Dr. Hal Herzog, discusses the case of a blind student named Leo who asked Herzog if he thought his seeing-eye dog was aware of his blindness. Herzog didn’t know so he queried a number of experts. Marc Bekoff and Steve Zawitoski “both pointed out that dogs do not have the abstract mental concept of ‘seeing,’ so Leo's dog would not, at least in a literal sense, know what blindness is.” Herzog also looked at a number of experiments conducted by French cognitive ethologist, Florence Gaunet. “In one of the articles,” Herzog says, “she flat out wrote, ‘Guide dogs do not understand that their owners cannot see them.’”

If this is the case, then it’s very unlikely that dogs would have even the most rudimentary Theory of Mind, which means that the neurological substrates mentioned above—which again, are related to a much higher form of ToM—would not apply to dogs.

To re-cap, 1) like young children, dogs don’t understand the difference between right and wrong. 2) at best dogs only have a first-level Theory of Mind, but probably not even that, and 3) the parts of the brain associated with feelings of guilt are also associated with a fully-developed Theory of Mind, or the ability to represent the higher mental states of others.

Does knowing all this negate Bekoff’s entreaty, “We don’t know if dogs feel guilt so stop saying they don’t?” No. But it makes it very hard to see how they possibly could.


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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.