Dog shaming

The Neuroscience of Dog-shaming

By Dia Ascenzi


When your dog gets into the trash, or is caught chewing on your favorite shoes, what do you do? You shake your finger at him, and angrily use keywords like ‘bad’ or ‘no.’ You wait for the dog to give you that look that says they know they did something wrong. At that point, you assume the dog got the message, feels bad, and knows not to do it again.

There’s a popular trend on the internet known as “dog-shaming,” in which people take photos of their dog caught in the act. Attached to them is a note confessing what they did wrong. And sure enough, in mostly all of these photos, the poor pups look guilty and ashamed, enough so that plenty of dog-lovers see this shaming as abusive. In truth, these dogs likely don’t feel ashamed at all, and we are attributing human behavior to what is simply learned behavior.

Take into account Pavlov’s dog, and the observation of classical conditioning in dogs. Through repeated behaviors and association, this Russian psychologist (in methods much less dog-friendly than one might have expected from an experiment designed to make dog’s drool) was able to make a dog salivate at just the sound of a bell. The dog was conditioned to expect food when hearing the bell. Similarly, if a dog is punished for something enough times, he will eventually learn to expect the same punishment whenever it repeats the same behavior. When your dog looks guilty of something, it’s likely just him reacting in the way he has learned is appropriate for the situation. Regardless of how convincing the doe eyes may be, the general consensus among scientists is that no, dogs are in fact not capable of feeling this supposed shame.

Pascale Lemire, author of the New York Times bestseller Dog Shaming, explains, “I don’t think dogs actually feel shame. 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 they’re 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.’”

Stanley Coren, Ph.D concedes that while “dogs have all of the same brain structures that produce emotions in humans,” there seems to be a very distinct cutoff with regards to the complexity of emotions dogs are actually able to exhibit. This differs only slightly (or arguably not at all) from a separate study, in which brain scans show that dogs are “about as conscious as a human child.” Consciousness is extremely difficult to gauge (and is also distinctly separate from emotion, higher reasoning, and abstract thinking), so that statement alone is kind of vague. Basically, a dog’s brain is limited as to how much it will develop, and this falls short of shame and guilt, not to mention the more complex thoughts and feelings that we as humans are capable of producing.

Although it would be convenient to have a concrete, black and white answer on Fido’s awareness of his place in your life once and for all, there is indeed a gray area. It appears that while dogs don’t have quite the profound emotional or existential capabilities we do as humans, they aren’t empty vessels only capable of learning basic, mechanical behaviors either.

In an article by Marc Bekoff titled “Can Dogs Experience Guilt, Pride, and Shame: Why Not?” Bekoff suggests, “the necessary research has not really been done” to answer this question. However, we may be right to anthropomorphize, or humanize, dogs. As stated in an essay by Dr. Matt Cartmill, “Our close animal relatives, after all, are anthropomorphic in the literal sense of the word, which means "human-shaped." They have organs like ours, placed in the same relative positions.” That said, while we can’t be completely sure of what dogs are capable of feeling and thinking, scientists are fairly certain of what dogs are not capable of.

Perhaps when dog-owners like myself wonder “What is he thinking right now?” the answer may very well be limited to such basic notions as ‘hungry’ or ‘outside’ in a way not too dissimilar from the famous Far Side “dog translator” comic. It is also quite likely (and less adorably anthropomorphic) that however linked we feel to our canine pals, their level of awareness and their depth of emotion are less complex than ours as humans. Perhaps, like Pavlov’s dog learning that a ringing bell means food, our dogs are simply learning that putting on the sad puppy face means less scolding or punishment. Dogs can learn to show shame without feeling it, in the same way a dog can learn to ‘play dead,’ without actually knowing what ‘dead’ is.