LOS ANGELES (AP) — Next time your furry friend chews up your prized slippers, and you’re wagging your finger, exclaiming, “Shame on you!” remember this: your dog may look guilty, but it has no clue why you’re upset.
According to behaviorists, dogs simply don’t feel shame. That look of guilt — droopy eyes, ears back, head low — it’s merely a response to your current outburst over a mess made hours ago.
“Just get over it and remind yourself not to put temptation in the way next time,” advises Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a professor at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and the head of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
However, these scientific findings haven’t dampened the enthusiasm for online dog-shaming platforms like dogshaming.com and shameyourpet.com, or the humorous videos on youtube.com/crackrockcandy. In these visuals, dogs don hilarious written “confessions” and are often found amidst the remnants of their supposed wrongdoings. Undoubtedly, in some images, they seem to be guilty of eating, drinking, gnawing, licking or wrecking things they shouldn’t have.
Dogshaming.com was the pioneer and remains one of the top sites in this niche. Since Pascale Lemire launched it in August 2012, the site has amassed over 58 million page views and over 65,000 submissions. Each submission must feature a photo of the dog wearing a ‘guilty’ expression.
Lemire, a resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, also authored a book titled Dog Shaming, which became a New York Times best-seller in January.
“I don’t think dogs actually feel shame,” Lemire commented. “I think they know how to placate us with this sad puppy-dog look that makes us think they’re ashamed of what they’ve done. My guess is that their thinking is: ‘Oh man, my owner is super mad about something, but I don’t know what, but he seems to calm down when I give him the sad face, so let’s try that again.'”
Lemire believes that these dog-shaming memes on the internet are just a bit of harmless fun.
“People come for a laugh and camaraderie,” Lemire said. “They see that their dog isn’t the only one who does awful things. People don’t shame their dogs out of anger, they do it out of love.”
The trend even caught the eye of some celebs, thanks to another dog owner. In late 2011, Jeremy Lakaszcyck from Boston began sharing shaming videos of his lemon beagle, Maymo, on YouTube. Fast forward four months, and one of these videos featured on Ellen DeGeneres’s show and was tweeted by comedian Ricky Gervais, Lakaszcyck said. This exposure skyrocketed the videos’ popularity.
Lakaszcyck also shared photos with Lemire for dogshaming.com, boosting Maymo’s fame even more.
Maymo naturally looks a bit sad or guilty and can sense when Lakaszcyck is unhappy. “They know when their owners are cross.
“Maymo can sit for quite a while looking sad because he’s a ham. It’s natural, and he knows a treat is coming. His tail usually wags through the wait. It’s like he’s happy on one end and sad on the other,” Lakaszcyck remarked.
The ‘guilty dog look’ was scientifically studied in 2009 by Alexandra Horowitz, a psychology associate professor at Barnard College in New York City. She included her findings in one of her books, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know.
For her study, she videotaped 14 dogs during various tests, observing their reactions when their owner left the room after instructing them not to eat a treat. Upon the owner’s return, sometimes they knew what the dogs had done, sometimes they didn’t. Likewise, sometimes the dogs had eaten the treats, and sometimes they hadn’t.
“I found that the ‘look’ appeared most often when owners scolded their dogs, regardless of whether the dog had disobeyed or did something for which they might or should feel guilty. It wasn’t ‘guilt’ but a reaction to the owner that prompted the look,” explained Horowitz.
“I am not saying that dogs might not feel guilt, just that the ‘guilty look’ is not an indication of it,” she added. She also suggested there’s a distinction between guilt and shame.
Dogs can certainly learn from misbehavior, but the impact of rewards or punishment diminishes the longer it follows the misdeed, noted Beaver, the vet professor. “The further you get from the event, the weaker the link with the behavior,” she explained.
At some point, your dog will likely cower, waiting for your tantrum to end, your tone to soften, and your negative body language to disappear, Beaver added.
But it does make you curious about which other emotions dogs lack apart from guilt.
“Humans have a natural desire to know what an animal is thinking, and yet we are limited to reading body language and measuring physiological reactions,” Beaver stated. The crux of the matter is, “We will never truly know because we cannot ask them.”