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What Dogs Really Think When They Get Scolded: Understanding Canine Behavior

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As dog owners, we’ve all experienced those moments when we come home to a mess or discover that our furry friend has chewed up our favorite pair of shoes. It’s natural to feel frustrated and want to scold our dogs for their misbehavior. But have you ever wondered what goes through a dog’s mind when they get scolded? Do they understand that they’ve done something wrong? In this article, we’ll explore the fascinating world of canine behavior and delve into what dogs really think when they receive a scolding.

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Can Dogs Feel Guilt or Shame?

One common belief is that dogs display a “guilty look” when they’ve done something wrong, suggesting that they feel guilt or shame. However, scientific research suggests otherwise. According to Doctor Lee, a well-known expert in dog behavior, the so-called “guilty look” is actually a form of appeasement behavior. Dogs have learned that offering this behavior can help them turn off their owner’s threatening posture and stop the scolding. It’s more about trying to please their human rather than feeling genuine guilt.

The Role of Body Language

When we scold our dogs, our body language changes from our usual happy demeanor to a more threatening posture. Dogs are highly perceptive and can pick up on these cues. They recognize that we are behaving in a different, more intimidating way. This is why they consistently offer the so-called “guilty” behavior – it’s a learned response to make us stop scolding them. Most people don’t continue scolding their dogs once they appear guilty, as they believe the dog understands that they’ve done something wrong.

Understanding the “Guilty Look”

A study conducted by Alexandra Horowitz revealed that owners are more likely to say their dogs looked guilty when they believed their dogs had done something wrong, even if the dogs were innocent. This suggests that the “guilty look” in dogs is more about human perception than actual guilt. Dogs are highly attuned to our emotions and body language, and they can sense when we’re upset or angry. Their response is to exhibit behaviors that they believe will appease us and restore harmony.

Can Dogs Differentiate Between Right and Wrong?

While dogs can learn to associate certain behaviors with negative consequences, they don’t possess the same complex moral framework that humans do. Dogs live in the present moment and are driven by instinct and immediate rewards. They don’t have the cognitive ability to understand concepts like right and wrong. Instead, they rely on reinforcement and conditioning to determine which behaviors are acceptable and which are not.

The Importance of Positive Reinforcement

When it comes to training our dogs, positive reinforcement is key. Instead of focusing on scolding or punishment, it’s more effective to reward desired behaviors. Dogs are eager to please their owners, and they respond well to positive reinforcement techniques. By using treats, praise, and rewards, we can reinforce good behavior and teach our dogs what we expect from them.

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The Limits of Canine Understanding

It’s important to remember that dogs have their own unique way of perceiving the world. While they can pick up on our emotions and body language, they don’t possess the same level of comprehension as humans. Dogs may not fully understand why we’re scolding them, but they can sense our displeasure. It’s crucial to be patient and consistent in our training methods, focusing on clear communication and positive reinforcement.

Signs Your Dog Knows You’re Upset

Even though dogs may not fully comprehend the concept of guilt or shame, they can still recognize when we’re upset or angry. They are highly attuned to our emotional state and can pick up on subtle cues. Some signs that your dog knows you’re upset include:

  1. Puppy-dog eyes: Dogs have learned that their “puppy-dog eyes” can often melt our hearts and make us less mad. They use this expression to try to reduce tension and regain our favor.
  2. Avoiding eye contact: When dogs sense our anger or displeasure, they may exhibit submissive behavior, such as avoiding eye contact, tucking their tails, or flattening their ears against their head. These actions are a way of showing deference and trying to diffuse the situation.
  3. Avoiding looking at the mess: Dogs may also avert their gaze from the mess they’ve made. This is another form of submissive behavior, as they hope that by not acknowledging their wrongdoing, we’ll become less angry.
  4. Whimpering or crying: In some cases, dogs may whimper or cry when they sense our anger. These vocalizations are a way for them to express their discomfort and seek reassurance.

The Role of Learned Behavior

Studies have shown that dogs can quickly learn to associate certain behaviors and actions with our emotional responses. They can recognize patterns and predict how we’ll react based on previous experiences. For example, if a dog has been scolded in the past for chewing on shoes, they may exhibit guilty behavior when they see their owner’s shoes, even if they haven’t done anything wrong. This learned response is a way for them to avoid punishment and maintain a harmonious relationship with their human companions.

The Importance of Clear Communication

To effectively communicate with our dogs, it’s crucial to be clear, consistent, and patient. Dogs rely on our cues and signals to understand what we expect from them. Using a combination of verbal commands, hand gestures, and positive reinforcement, we can teach our dogs the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. By providing clear guidelines and consistent feedback, we can help our dogs thrive and strengthen the bond between human and canine.

The Potential Pitfalls of Dog Shaming

Dog shaming has become a popular trend on social media, where owners publicly shame their dogs for their misbehavior. While it may seem harmless and entertaining, there are potential downsides to this practice. The guilty look that dogs display in these photos is often misinterpreted as genuine guilt, but it can actually be a sign of anxiety or fear. Shaming or scolding your dog can add to their stress and may not effectively address the underlying causes of their behavior. It’s important to approach training and discipline with empathy and understanding.

Building a Strong Relationship with Your Dog

At the end of the day, our dogs want nothing more than to please us and be part of our pack. They may not understand the intricacies of guilt and shame, but they can sense our emotions and respond to our cues. By focusing on positive reinforcement, clear communication, and understanding our dogs’ unique needs and instincts, we can build a strong and harmonious relationship with our furry companions. Remember, they rely on us to guide them and provide the love and support they need to thrive.


While dogs may not experience guilt or shame in the same way humans do, they are highly perceptive animals that can recognize our emotions and respond to our cues. The so-called “guilty look” is a learned behavior that dogs use to appease their owners and avoid punishment. By focusing on positive reinforcement, clear communication, and empathy, we can effectively train our dogs and build a strong bond based on trust and understanding. So the next time you find yourself wanting to scold your dog, remember to approach the situation with patience, love, and a commitment to positive reinforcement.

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