We’ve all been there- it was “one of those days” last year. I got back first, pleased to be home from a hospital appointment that had unexpectedly taken nearly all day. Smudgey was cowering. Unusually I didn’t get my joyous welcome. I bent over and tickled her, she wagged and seemed more herself. In the living room, by the back door, was a puddle. The poor thing had been caught short. I couldn’t blame her, I’d been away too long.
Why was she cowering? I was horrified that she was scared as I have never given her any reason to be afraid of me. It really played on my mind. She was raised with encouragement and support- she does like carrots and the stick is only good to play fetch and chase. When she was being toilet trained, if she was caught “red-handed” I would say “A-A!” in a reasonably cross tone and encourage her into the garden, leaving the door open while I cleaned up. If I found a puddle I wouldn’t tell her off, as we were given to understand that dogs live in the here and now and she would have already forgotten the misdemeanour; shouting would just make her wonder why I was being mean, making a fuss about that old puddle.
I thought she was behaving guiltily. But then I read that’s impossible, dogs can’t do that. Huh? I’ve just seen her!
It is argued that dogs do not feel guilt and humans are anthropomorphising, misunderstanding their dogs behaviour. In a recent study researchers set up a situation where a dog was alone and had an opportunity to be naughty. Researchers lied to owners about what their dog had done- the owners with dogs that had behaved were told they were bad . Owners would then often reprimand their pet and interpret their dog’s behaviour as remorseful, when the dog had, in fact, been good and no guilt was necessary- any sad or cowering behaviour displayed by the dog was an expression of ‘Please don’t be cross with me’ (Horowitz). To me, this study does demonstrate clearly that a dog recognises when their owner is disappointed with them. However, the study can not refute or deny the existence of remorse in a dog as the situation was was manipulated to examine the owners’ responses. Primarily, my problem with the experiment is with the assumption that the owner is the first to react. When I considered Smudge was behaving guiltily, it was she who was behaving oddly; it was later that I found she had had an accident. I had done nothing different myself that would change her behaviour as I arrived, if anything I was particularly looking forward to my usual lovely welcome hugs as the day had been tedious.
The accepted current scientific understanding is that dogs are incapable of guilt- or other such high level abstract thinking and subsequent emotional response. To feel guilt, there must be an awareness of right and wrong, some understanding of morality. Here we run into a philosophical brick wall. In years gone by our priests and common knowledge would have told us dogs don’t have a soul, can’t go to heaven as they are unable to understand or adhere to the Commandments. Morality was driven by the church’s teachings, so it was assumed that without the church, people would not have a basis for right and wrong. Dogs, not being able to to speak human, would not have the capacity to understand religious teachings, were not able to tell right from wrong and thus would not have a conscience or soul. These days, we are less influenced by religion but still have morality- our prisons aren’t over-run by atheists.
Perhaps we should be asking whether dogs are able comprehend that there are consequences to their actions. If you asked a dog trainer this question, their answer would undoubtedly be “of course dogs understand cause and effect, else I wouldn’t have a job”. Training works because dogs learn the chain reaction- if their owner asks them to do something and they comply, then nice things happen and if they don’t comply, nice things don’t happen. Every command and trick the dog learns is based upon this one principle. The bond between owner and dog is further strengthened when these commands are used in the wider world- if the dog can crawl on their bellies on the carpet in the house then the same command can suggest a way out of a tricky kissing gate whilst on a walk. Dogs and owners take great delight in such moments of useful communication. Several experiments of adult dogs recently demonstrated their ability to understand inferential reasoning (if the treat is not hidden in the first cup, then it must be in the other one) but also that dogs’ capacity for understanding communication is so great that it can overshadow their solid logical thinking capabilities (Erdőhegyi et al).
So was Smudgey remorseful when she peed in the house? I think so. She was certainly sad and cheered up when we had a cuddle after I’d cleaned.
If there is any anthropomorphising it would lie in the possible motives to her guilt. Somehow I doubt that she was sorry because of sympathy for me and my impending mopping, possibly that she didn’t like the smelly puddle in the house, more likely that she didn’t want to be in my bad books.
Moral judgements, state psychologists like Piaget and Kohlberg, begin to mature in humans in adolescence. Even though very young children are considered differently under the law, they are still expected act appropriately in different situations. Dogs can demonstrably understand the same number of words as the average toddler and as such been attributed the same intellectual capabilities (Coren). Toddlers clearly understand some aspects of right and wrong. I will never forget the first time I heard my boys fib. They were 2 and 3 our sweet-laden advent calendar suspiciously emptied on the 2nd. Both boys employed the ‘Shaggy defence’ (“it wasn’t me”) saying emphatically that they had absolutely nothing to do with it- words spoken with mouths that were smeared with chocolate.
Even though I am saying dogs do have the capacity to comprehend right from wrong and, yes, they feel guilt … perhaps would it be a bit unfair to attribute a whole grown-ups worth of expectations of morals onto a dog.