SCIENCE
08/31/2015 06:30 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2015

Do Dogs Feel 'Guilty' Like We Do? Here's What The Science Says

We may have gotten canine body language all wrong.

Plenty of dog owners have seen their pets make a "guilty face" after doing something wrong. You know the look -- the lowered ears, the ducked head, the droopy eyes. But can dogs actually feel shame?

Maybe not, according to an article that appeared last week in the U.K. newspaper The Telegraph. Researchers told the paper that when a dog appears to be acting contrite, it may just be responding to the angry or dominant body language of its owner.

"I had a client who had three dogs and whenever something happened like a shoe was chewed, it was always one of them that had the guilty look," Dr. Ljerka Ostojic, a comparative psychologist at Cambridge University in England, told The Telegraph. "Yet often she was not the dog who had done it. She was just the most timid dog, and got frightened more quickly by her owner's reaction."

Ostojic is the lead author of a study published in February in the journal Behavioural Processes, in which researchers found no support for the idea that dogs display the "guilty look" when they're not actually being scolded.

"We cannot know for sure because we cannot ask them," Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a professor of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University, told The Huffington Post in an email.

But, she said, "the body language we are really looking at... is simply a submissive response to the body language the higher ranking person is using. We are towering over them, showing direct eye contact, using an accusatory tone of voice."

A 2009 study showed that domestic dogs tended to look the most "guilty" when they were being scolded by their owners -- even if they hadn't done anything wrong.

While it's not clear whether dogs feel the complex social emotions of shame and guilt, dogs do develop basic emotions like excitement, distress, contentment, disgust, fear, anger, joy, suspicion and love, according to Modern Dog magazine. (Watch "Inside Out" if you don't believe us.)

However, as cognitive ethologist Dr. Marc Bekoff noted in a 2014 op-ed for Live Science, dogs have the same neural bases for emotions as other mammals that do experience complex social emotions like guilt. This suggests that it's at least possible that dogs can feel guilt, too -- just maybe not for chewing up your favorite pair of shoes.

"Since animals 'live in the moment' and do what seems appropriate to them at the time, it is doubtful they know the feeling of guilt as we do," Beaver told HuffPost. "It is also extremely difficult to find the answers in non-verbal species."

How did dogs become man's best friend in the first place? Check out the "Talk Nerdy To Me" video below.

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