The Myth of Canine Shame (Or Is It Guilt?)

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William Brennan writes:

‘…”[D]og shaming” has become popular on Twitter and Instagram, as owners around the world post shots of their trembling pets beside notes in which the dogs seem to cop to bad behavior… Human enthusiasm for guilty dogs seems boundless: A 2013 collection of dog-shaming photos landed on the New York Times best-seller list; [one] video has been viewed more than 50 million times.

But according to Alexandra Horowitz, a dog-cognition expert at Barnard College, what we perceive as a dog’s guilty look is no sign of guilt at all… Far from signaling remorse, one group of researchers wrote in a 2012 paper, the guilty look is likely a submissive response that has proved advantageous because it reduces conflict between dog and human …’

Source: The Atlantic

However, I’m not sure I share the conclusion that this does not represent guilt. What we call guilt in humans is assumed to reflect a sense that one has done wrong by violating some moral code. But moral philosophers and psychologists know that some proportion of humans operate on the level not of governing their actions by some intrinsic sense of what is right or wrong but rather that of simply not getting caught by some powerful other — just what the researchers are saying is happening in the canine world.

PS: There is also a difference between “shame” and “guilt”. A rule of thumb is that shame is discomfort at who you are, whereas guilt is discomfort at something you’ve done. If you shame someone for something they did, you are globally condemning them as a person — or a dog — for a single action.