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Do Dogs Feel Guilty?

Sally Gutteridge
Gregory Berns has relatively recently introduced us to alert brain scans of dogs, for the purpose of exploring their emotional capacity through brain activity. Berns tells us that from the beginning of his research, the dogs were treated as persons. With a consents form modelled on a child’s consent form, the dog’s guardian was required to give consent to dog participation and only positive methods of teaching were used. After a few months of positive teaching, Berns and his team were rewarded with the first alert canine brain mapping activity.

The striking similarity between the human and canine brain began with the behaviour of brain region Caudate Nucleus. It is virtually impossible to associate a brain area with one particular feeling or emotion, yet the caudate is linked with feelings in people associated with music and food preferences – even beauty. In dogs the Caudate has been linked through Berns’ research with pleasure at the dog’s guardian stepping into view and hand signals preceding the presentation of food. Berns suggested that this may show that this particular brain area could be linked with love, and this is explored more deeply in his publication “How Dogs Love Us”.

Canine emotions are not too dissimilar to ours. They are fuelled by the mind and we can consider learning as a storage area that the mind draws upon, to understand whether it needs to reinforce an emotion. The dog generally lives by their heart and something severe must happen to them for them to be continually experiencing strong negative emotions, even then they can get over it if the severity stops and they get the space to return to the moment they are in. 

An example of this is Holly, my little dog taken from the puppy farm. She’s the happiest little dog in the world now, despite six years as a breeding dog she loves her home and life. When Holly arrived with us she was very fearful and shut-down. She was especially scared of people and would go nowhere near us. Now she asks to play with our hands, wriggles, play bites and rolls around loving a game. With the space to rebalance in our company and in her safe home, Holly is living completely through her heart and in the exact moment that she’s in.

Many years ago, accurate assessments were made by Charles Darwin and others in his time, telling us that there is no difference between animal and man in our ability to suffer. It was generally accepted that animals were emotionally rich, as were humans.

Then science began to need proof of the emotional lives of animals at a time when we knew very little about anything. Descartes was a French scientist in the 17th century prominent with his opinion that animals have no concept for emotion, that they were simply machine like beings who feel nothing. In fact, he thought that about all of us and decided that only humans have a soul, whilst animals don’t. He then told the world (based on his own idea that there must be a God, for him to be able to imagine a God) that the soul is somewhere in the body – then promptly died without putting the record straight.

Thankfully though, we have come a long way since Descartes’ odd views and are questioning everything in a more balanced way, we are aware that animals do indeed have rich emotional lives. At present, dogs are known to have all the basic emotions such as fear, love, joy, pain and happiness. We are also aware that they are very likely to experience more complicated emotions such as jealously associated with a sense of fair play. We know that the dog has emotional areas in the brain that light up with the presence of someone they love, or at the prospect of tasty food. 

Other emotions, such as guilt, pride and compassion are at this point not proven in dogs, they are often referred to as higher emotions because they are indicative of presence of mind. Guilt is a common unproven emotion that we must continue to investigate as guilt is associated with the idea that a dog “knows they have done wrong”. When people assume their dog looks guilty, therefore feels guilty, they assume the dog knew he was doing wrong and did the wrong thing anyway therefore deserves punishment or disappointment. 

Dogs experience emotions, of this there is no doubt. A range of emotion which certainly covers heart based feelings such as love, happiness, fear and joy and pain. They also experience nervous system based changes such as stress and anxiety. Whether they think beyond the moment they live in, or have the presence of mind for rumination and guilt, we don’t really know. As you and I don’t know whether our dogs feel guilt, we simply can’t assume either way. The important thing to remember is that dogs are our friends and we must fill in the gaps of our own knowledge with kindness towards them every step of our lives together. 

As their emotions change their internal world, and our emotions are contagious to them, we must consider the links with emotional impact, canine behaviour and the wellbeing of our dogs. 

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