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Dog Guilt is Imaginary, so Science Says :: Do Dogs Have a Conscience?


guilty dogI grew up with a dog.  I remember talking with him as if he were a friend, getting happy when he wagged his tail, getting concerned when he looked bored, basically, I remember treating my dog as if he were a human, an equal.

People could tell me all day long that my dog didn’t understand what I meant when I asked how he was doing, but I knew that wasn’t true.

I knew.

After all, he was a dog, a best friend.  He understood everything I said and asked, and when I punished him – “Bad boy, Dino!” – for doing something inappropriate inside the house, he felt guilty for his screw up.

I had faith in my dog.  I believed he could learn and grow with me.

Together we would become better people.  Dogs are cool like that.

It’s no wonder that with my kind of faith I have to take issue with this short write-up in the August 2009 issue of Smithsonian:

NAME:  The domestic dog, Canis familiaris
LOOKS: Guilty (e.g., avoids eye contact, drops its tail, lies down, rolls onto its back, slinks off).
THINKS: Who knows? But a dog’s guilty look is a reaction not to whatever the dog did, but to its owner’s scolding, according to a study by psychologist Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College. One telltale bit of data: dogs gave the guilty look when their owners mistakenly thought the dogs had eaten a forbidden treat, even when the dogs were completely innocent. More study – a lot more – is required to establish whether dogs have a conscience.

Science always tries to oust faith.  But what do you think?  Can it be shown that dogs have a conscience?

August 8, 2009 5:29 pm

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