Guilty Or Not Guilty?


A recent study purported to show that dogs do not feel guilt
but that so-called guilt is a product of our anthropomorphic imaginations.The dogs were put in a room with their owners and told not to eat a tasty treat.The owners then left the room. Some of the dogs were then offered the treat by one of the researchersbefore the owner returned to the room. The owner was then misinformed as to whether their dog had committed theoffense.  Apparently, there was verylittle connection between the dogs’ guilty look and the disappearance of thetreats.  This study proves that dogowners (people in general) see what they believe to be true as opposed to whatis actually going on.  It isanother example of the so-called placebo effect.  

If during therapeutic studies we tell people which sideeffects to look out for with a particular drug (specific physical signs), ownerswill report those signs even in the placebo (no drug) phase.  In the guilt study, innocent dogs that werescolded by their owners looked more “guilty” than those that had eaten thetreat. But dogs know what scolding means, and will act cowed or “guilty” eventhough they may not know what they have done.

Dr Peter Kramer (of Listening to Prozac fame) told me therehad been a similar but slightly different guilt study performed using dogsthat  informed more about the dog end of the equation. A small number oftreats was laid out on a low table and each dog was instructed not to touchthem. The owner then left the room. When one of the treats was removed from theline-up, dogs duped in this way acted guilty even though their owner knew thatthey had not taken the treat. This study seemed to indicate that a) dogs cancount (low numbers) and b) that they are capable of feeling guilt. I would beinterested in hearing your opinions on the subject of guilt.