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Behaviorists: Dogs feel no shame despite that look

LOS ANGELES — The next time you start shaking your finger and shouting
“Shame on you!” because your dog chewed up your favorite fuzzy slippers, just
remember that no matter how guilty your dog looks, it doesn’t know what your
rant is about.

Behaviorists insist dogs lack shame. The guilty look — head cowered, ears back,
eyes droopy — is a reaction to the tantrum you are throwing now over the damage
they did hours earlier.

“Just get over it and remind yourself not to put temptation in the way next
time,” said Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a professor at Texas A&M University’s College of
Veterinary Medicine and executive director of the American College of Veterinary

But scientific findings haven’t put a dent in the popularity of online dog
shaming sites like and or videos like those
posted on In the photos and videos, dogs wear
humorous written “confessions” and often are surrounded by the remnants of
their misdeeds. There is no question that in some photos, they look guilty of
eating, drinking, chewing, licking or destroying something they shouldn’t have. was the first and is among the most popular sites. Since Pascale
Lemire started it in August 2012, it has received more than 58 million page
views and more than 65,000 submissions. A submission has to come with a photo
showing the dog’s guilty look.

Lemire, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, also published a book called
“Dog Shaming,” which hit the New York Times best-seller list in January.

“I don’t think dogs actually feel shame,” Lemire said. “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.’ ”

She thinks the online dog shaming memes are all in good 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.”

Another dog owner helped get celebrities into the trend. In late 2011, Jeremy
Lakaszcyck of Boston started putting shaming videos of his lemon beagle, Maymo,
on YouTube. Four months later, Ellen DeGeneres ran one of them on her show and
comedian Ricky Gervais tweeted it. The popularity of the videos soared,
Lakaszcyck said.

He also submitted photos to Lemire for, which made Maymo even
more famous.

Maymo has a naturally sad or guilty face and senses something is wrong if
Lakaszcyck speaks in a stern voice. “They know when their owners are angry.

“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,” he said.

One of the first scientific studies on the “guilty dog look” was conducted in
2009 by Alexandra Horowitz, an associate professor of psychology at Barnard
College in New York City. One of her books, “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See,
Smell, and Know,” included the findings.

In the study, she used 14 dogs, videotaping them in a series of trials and
studying how they reacted when an owner left the room after telling them not to
eat a treat. When the owners returned, sometimes they knew what the dogs had
done and sometimes they didn’t and 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,” Horowitz said.

“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 believes there is a difference
between guilt and shame.

Dogs can certainly learn from bad behavior, but rewards or punishment are most
effective right after the wrongdoing, said Beaver, the veterinary professor.
“The farther it gets from that, the less connection is made with the
behavior,” she said.

At some point, your dog will probably cower, waiting for you to complete your
meltdown, ditch the negative voice and lose the nasty body language, Beaver

But you do wonder what other emotions dogs lack besides 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 said. The bottom line is: “We will never truly know because we cannot
ask them.”




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