So Sorry About That Skirt … Or Not?

My sister was clearly annoyed. “Ziggy ate my new silk skirt,” she reported.

Ziggy is a German shepherd with a penchant for illicit snacks. A gentle soul, he’s been led astray by his big sister, a keeshond named Hannah. Their usual modus operandi, though, is raiding the refrigerator — now only possible when Cyndi forgets to close the child-and-dog-proof latch she bought for it.

Cyndi then ventured into common, but contentious, territory. “He’s sorry,” she said. “He keeps apologizing and acting guilty.”

She’s not alone in believing that this is possible. According to Scientific American blogger Jason Goldman, 74 percent of dog owners believe that their dogs show guilt. But, like many scientists, Goldman argues that evidence for dogs’ ability to show “secondary emotions,” which include guilt, pride, and jealousy, is rare. The argument, Goldman says, is that guilt is too complicated an emotion for non-human animals.

Bah, I say. I’m with the 74 percent.

"I'm sorry."

After a lifetime of living with, working with, and studying dogs, I am convinced that they feel the entire range of complex emotions, including guilt, pride, and jealousy. Charles Darwin believed that social primates exhibited these emotions. Behavior patterns that resemble guilt — keeping the head down, averting the gaze — have been observed in wolves, too.

Social animals, including dogs and wolves, need to get along with the others in their group. Secondary emotions, which also include anxiety, worry, contentedness, and affection, are social lubricants. They reinforce social bonds, elicit tolerance, reduce conflict — all things essential to anyone living in a group. Dogs are highly social, and dogs are highly dependent on humans. It makes perfect sense that dogs would understand and feel these emotions.

But.

Feeling them and showing them are two different things. A while back, a series of You Tube videos starring Denver, the “Guilty Dog” was popular. Other dog parents jumped on the bandwagon, posting their own “guilty dog” videos. Problem was, most of the videos showed scared dogs or appeasing dogs or very stressed-out dogs. Not necessarily guilty dogs.

What many dogs learn is that certain behaviors on their humans’ part mean that the humans are unhappy. Angry, even. Angry with them, perhaps. They might have no idea why the human is angry, but they want to make the tension go away. Dogs are very good at figuring out how to placate, neutralize anger, make their humans laugh, or otherwise reduce the possibility of hostile actions directed at them by their humans.

Not that Cyndi is mean to her dogs. She’s a great dog mom. And that explanation only makes sense if Ziggy was anticipating a scolding (or worse) — which is extremely unlikely. So we’re back at square one: Was Ziggy feeling guilty and apologizing for eating her skirt?

My long-distance reading of the situation is that Ziggy knew that Cyndi was unhappy with him. They have a close bond and can read each other well. He’s a very sensitive dog. I think it is likely that he not only understood that she was upset but also that it was connected with the skirt.

So, yes, he could have been apologizing. Or he simply could have been trying to calm her down. It actually doesn’t matter which is the case. From a broad social-science perspective, the two aren’t that different; the goal of both is to defuse tension and reduce strife between group members. And, it worked.

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7 thoughts on “So Sorry About That Skirt … Or Not?

  1. One more thought about guilt. In moral development terms, feeling guilty includes both the realization that one has done wrong and intention to act better in the future. While I have no doubt that dogs feel the first, I have strong doubts that they feel the second. I think that it is more likely that dogs think, “I’m sorry that Mom is mad at me,” and “Can’t wait to have the opportunity to get away with doing that thing again.”

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  2. Gee Pam, I don’t usually find myself disagreeing with you. I think there is a big difference between feeling guilt and cheering up / calming one’s human. I agree, I’ve seen all of the other secondary emotions that you mentioned. I’m just not sure about the guilt thing. And I feel that it is VERY different than anxiety, worry and affection. And I think feeling guilty is different than, “gee, I’m sorry, let’s go play.” Guilt would be an inward emotion, and “sorry” (if it had something to do with that skirt) that you feel badly, would be a reaction to what his human was feeling. Get my drift?

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    • Yes, I get your drift and I agree with you. Guilt IS different because it requires a sense of “right” and “wrong” — one can only feel guilty about something if one believes it to be “wrong” or “bad.” These are very subjective terms, and many people are uncomfortable with the idea that dogs understand these concepts AS WE HUMANS DO. But I do think that dogs have strong ideas about fairness and justice, and that this requires SOME sense of “right” and “wrong.” Their definitions might be very different from ours, but I do think that they have the capacity to feel that something is “wrong.”
      From there, it is another pretty big leap to say that they can identify something they have done as “wrong” and feel the regret over having done it that we call guilt.
      Of course I cannot PROVE it, but from a “social animals” point of view, from a biological point of view, and from an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense that dogs can feel guilt. And, they exhibit behaviors similar to those that humans and other social primates do in situations where feeling guilt would be appropriate. So, my best guess is, they do feel guilt.

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