When your dog looks at you with those big sad eyes, is he guilty or is he just aware that you’re angry with him? And can animals, on their own, develop a sense of guilt for what they do to other animals? We take a look at a few experiments that examine these questions.
When we talk about “guilt” applying to animals we are looking for two things. The first is that the animals knows some action is wrong. The second is that the animal cares, even a little bit, about doing the wrong thing. The favored animals used for experiments in this kind of thing are dogs, because they are on hand, and because the years that their owners have spent training them to recognize some behavior as deserving of praise and some behavior as deserving of censure. This makes the experiment conducted on them just a little bit sad.
Not too sad. A series of experiments was done on dogs and their owners. First the dogs and owners were put in a lab room. The owners walked out for a time and came in again, greeting the dog as they did. This established a basic procedure. Next the dogs were shown that, though food was placed on a table in the room, they were not allowed to eat it. Only their owners ate at the table. That established a rule.
Next were two tests. In the first, the owner put a piece of food on the table and left the room. The dog could eat the food or not. In the second, the food was left by the owner, but taken by a researcher, and the dog didn’t get a chance to eat it. When the owners came back in the room, they were either told that the dogs had eaten the food or hadn’t, regardless of whether the dog had or not. Then they either scolded or greeted the dog.