Dogs Don’t Do Guilt – An Open Letter to Good Morning America

To the producers of Good Morning America:

I realize the piece you did on Denver the Guilty Dog on your March 24th show was intended to be a cute, feel good piece about dogs that many dog owners would identify with. However, I believe it could have harmful consequences for dogs everywhere.

The contention I have with this piece is that a clear question is raised but never answered; do dogs feel guilt? A quick phone call and any certified behaviorist, ethologist, or trainer would have been glad to be on your show. I suspect it would have added about 30 seconds to the piece and would have been along the lines of the following:

Denver and all the dogs shown in the video clips are not showing guilt. They are trying to communicate in the only language they have, that they are feeling nervous and anxious and that they are not a threat. Their expressions and reactions are in direct relation to:

  • The body language of the person holding the camera.
  • The vocal tone of the person holding the camera.
  • The camera itself which can be perceived by the dog as staring, an impolite and aggressive thing to do.
  • Possibly the item of contention itself. Not because of guilt, but it’s associated with something unpleasant that has happened to them before.

The reason I believe this to be harmful is that if we believe dogs feel guilty, then they must understand that what they did was wrong. If they knew it was wrong and did it anyway, they are being willful and so punishment may be needed.

Perpetuating this myth is not only harmful and hurtful to dogs, it can also put their owners at risk should the dog begin to take issue with being punished for something it doesn’t understand.

I understand the need to have pieces like this one on your show and I am just as guilty as the next dog owner at seeing human like behaviors in my dogs. But I ask you to be a bit more responsible and follow through on the obvious questions raised by a piece like this. You had an opportunity to teach as well as entertain and you missed it. Please consider this the next time you do a piece like this.


Kevin Myers

29 thoughts on “Dogs Don’t Do Guilt – An Open Letter to Good Morning America

  1. THANK YOU!!!! I agree and was thinking about writing a post. What I saw when people first pointed me to the video was that these “cute” behaviors could be rooted in …. if not fear, then at least … nervousness. I didn’t see “guilt.” I saw a dog feeling uncomfortable about all the things you mention … the disapproving tone of voice, the camera, etc.

    I also wondered, though, if the dog had been taught to make the face on cue too … like a trick.

    • I thought of that too Roxanne. It’s possible, but some dogs and breeds in particular use it naturally as an appeasement. My Australian Shepherd Gavin has done it since he was a pup. Whenever we go out and come back home he circles around us and smiles. Often he sneezes as well because he smiles so hard. It’s an appeasement gesture common in Aussies and in fact he does it on cue now whenever I say smile. He learned it simply by me calling him Gavin Smiley whenever he did it.

    • It is unlikely that this is a cued response because the dog has his eyes closed for a good part of the “trick”. Closed eyes are seen like this not when the dog is relaxed and confident but when the dog cannot avoid a bad thing from happening. This is an example of a rarely seen behaviour that indicates that the dog has been traumatized. Also, look for the tonguing; the dog is drawing his tongue back and forth into his mouth and he tongue flicks once too; all signs that the dog is uncomfortable and unhappy.

  2. Our Dalmatian used to grin like this too. The first time we saw it was when we picked her up at the ER hospital after a terrible poisoning. Her lips were so dry, though, that they stuck … and I was like, “What’s wrong with her face?”

    The doctor replied, “I think she is just really happy to see you.” :o)

    So we thought of it as smiling, though in not the happiest circumstances.

  3. Such an important thing to realize! I think majority people still do believe that dogs do feel guilty.

    Yes, they will send calming or submissive signals when faced with the result of their action, they know the human is not happy. They just usually don’t know why.

    Stanley Coren had a great picture of a dog getting heck for a torn up morning paper. He’s sitting there submissively (“looking’ guilty), while trying to figure out why he’s in trouble. “Should I have shredded it into smaller pieces? Should I have spread them around more randomly?”

  4. I’m glad you wrote this, Kevin. That video has been all over and, until this post, I hadn’t seen any critiquing it. It made me very uncomfortable, especially since it was so long and the guy seemed determined to blame everyone, as though that was somehow fun. I honestly don’t understand what so many people found funny about this.

  5. Excellent letter Kevin, and thank you for writing it. The first time I saw the video and cringed at all the stress signals Denver was displaying I didn’t know it was from GMA. I’m so glad you wrote to GMA. That segment was beyond irresponsible. It’s breaks my heart at how blind so many people are, as was I, I’m embarrassed to say, to the suffering of our dogs. We look right at them and don’t see what they are trying so desperately to say…and then we make fun of them and take them onto televisions sets and do it all over again? It’s frightening.

  6. Lets hope GMA takes up the subject one more time as a result of your letter. The video on youtube has more than 4M views and 4K comments. And you have to look very long for a comment that suggests it is maybe not so cute after all.

    • Yes I did Deb. However, their contact form only allowed for 500 characters. So I had to put the main gist of it in and provide a link to the post itself.

  7. And HOW do I express to my doxies that the presents they leave around the house, esp in front of the door, are socially unacceptable? I pick up the pieces and put them in front of the door to the crate where they get locked up and “have to think about it.” They have a doggie door which is open 99% of the time. There is no excuse.

    • Hard to say why your doxies are doing what they are doing but obviously they need some help in figuring out that inside is not an acceptable place to toilet. Please understand that they don’t know that inside is not an acceptable place simply by telling them or getting cross at them. First you have to limit your dogs free roam of the house so they don’t have the ability to simply eliminate where and when they want. I suggest they be crate trained. Second we need to show them where it is we want them to go. And third we need to praise them like heck when they do their business where we want them to go. Consistent management and praise are what is needed. My friend Eric Goebelbecker has an excellent series on house training which you can find here… I wish you well and hope that this helps both you and your doxies come to an understanding.

      • The part about the video I hated too was the fact that you really don’t know which dog tore up the stuff and then the guy blames it on Denver and sends him to his crate. I thought you never use a crate as punishment? Also the doxie woman says she leaves the poo in front of their crate doors to “think about it”. Just how long does she leave the doxies in the house unattened and does she potty them consistantly before she leaves?

        • It’s very hard to comment specifically on the person who had the problem with the doxies eliminating in the house. I really have no context for it. But the process of housetraining is pretty much the same for all with some exeptions where medical or psychological reasons come to play. Crates are not used as a punishment. Only as a means to confine the dog so it can’t eliminate where it wants based on the fact that most dogs wont toilet their den. Once the dog has learned that outside is the place to eliminate then it can be trusted out of the crate more and more. In my opinion every dog should be crate trained as it provides a stable and safe place for them to go and allows you to crate them for travel and in other instances where confinement is needed.

        • I SO agree Leslie. I was so conflicted by so many things in this video that I couldn’t not say anything about it. I wish more people would spend time learning about dogs. Maybe then we would have less dogs in our shelters.

  8. Ok….I have a question about “feelings” in dogs. Do they have feelings at all or is their behavior just a learned response. I have two mini doxies, one is a rescue dog we got about 3 years ago the the other one we got as a puppy from my boss. Freckles, our rescue dog, was abused (hit) alot because he’s a barker. He associates the “hand palm down” type of petting as a sign that he’s going to be hit and he backs away from that. He doesn’t do that so much with us anymore as he knows we won’t hit him, but with strangers he does it so when ever we are out I always ask anyone who wants to pet him to use a “palm up” and to let him approach them to be pet and to just scratch him under his chin first and gradually move around to the top of his head and his ears. All that to ask this: what about “happy” feelings? My husband is retired and I’m still working so when I come home they will run out onto the back porch, stand there and wag their little butts so hard and I swear it looks to me like they are smilling! They will run around me and jump on me until I set my things down and pet them and love all over them. Tiggers, our other doxie, loves to be held like a baby, cradled in our arms likes to give a “kiss” in response to the snuggling. Have we taught them these behaviors? What about personalities? Please educate me. I truly want to know.

    • Shirley,

      Our dogs definitely have feelings and what I would call emotional lives. Our mistake can come when we interpret expression and the body language they display and adapt it to a human counterpart. It’s funny but as I am typing this I am remember the movie Gran Torino with Clint Eastwood. In that movie, Clint’s character is invited to a party in which he is the only Caucasian in a room full of Hmong people who are from the mountainous regions of China & Vietnam and he is having trouble understanding their body language. There is a clip of that scene here where you can see that even among humans a smile has different meanings.

      Smiling in dogs can be a controversial subject and has to be seen in the context given. My dog Gavin smiles at my wife and I whenever we come home. I know that he is happy to see my wife and I and that on some level his happiness is akin to what I feel when I see him. But I also know that in wild dogs and wolves it is often a sign of appeasement and some even suggest it is a way to solicit food in much the same way the wolf pups will lick the mouth of an adult to get them to regurgitate food for them.

      My objection to the GMA piece was not to say that our dogs don’t have emotions that are similar to ours in some ways. But they do not plot and ploy in order to get even with us nor do they understand our reasoning. Their reasoning is not our own and to interpret it in that way paves the way for being upset or angry at them for things they really have no concept of.

      I am really thankful to you for asking these questions and grateful you’re trying to learn more. Here are some excellent books that I think will help you put things into perspective.

      On Talking Terms: Calming Signals – Turid Rugaas
      The Emotional Live of Dogs – Marc Bekoff
      Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog – Brenda Aloff
      The Other End of The Leash – Patrica McConnell
      Culture Clash – Jean Donaldson

  9. Thanks for the list of books to read! I will definately look for them and read them. I would love to know what “my boys” are really thinking!! 🙂

  10. Thanks for writing this Kevin. I was conflicted about the video from the very beginning and posted a comment (on another blogger’s site) about it. The comments that followed were all based on human feelings, not knowledge gained from studying dogs and reading up on dog behavior.

    I know sometimes we can all sound like a wet blanket when a “funny” pet video comes along that makes people laugh (and I hate being a wet blanket!), but if we don’t speak up and educate people and help them to understand dogs better then we contribute to the problem.
    I can only hope GMA will read your letter. I have little hope they will ever lean towards equal time however.

  11. Okay, putting aside whether dogs do or don’t feel guilt or have any emotions, why are so many people here jumping to the worst conclusions about this dog’s well being and care, and how she is treated? Statements such as “this is an example of a rarely seen behaviour that indicates that the dog has been traumatized” have no basis in fact. It is pure speculation. Good grief. Dogs learn to demonstrate body language around a lot of things that are not the result of “bad” treatment or trauma or fear. They learn what works and what we react to and what gets them a payoff…and it is quite possible that she may have learned that when she hears that tone of voice (guilty accusation voice) and she expresses herself that way she gets positive feedback of some variety, so she keeps demonstrating it in a repeatable way, on the cue of a specific tone of the owner’s voice. He capture it on video as a joke. If you don’t like the video or don’t find it humorous or feel it perpetuates incorrect beliefs about canine behavior, that is absolutely fine. But don’t jump to the worst possible conclusions about why Denver dog is doing it, or how her owner treats her. You have no idea what the circumstances are, what tricks she has learned, or how this behavior was shaped over time. You are just assuming it is bad, and that she must suffer from abuse.

    • My agreement with Sue Alexander’s comment was more along the lines of the fact that this behavior was not put on cue. I do believe that any statements about why Denver is behaving in the way he does are pure speculation at best. Many shy dogs would behave in the exact same way as Denver did and have not suffered any kind of abuse from humans.

      My only wish is to make people look beyond what they see as cute and discover that the real reason for the behavior that Denver displayed had nothing at all to do with guilt. Many of us viewed that video as very sad and misguided. That doesn’t give us the right to accuse the owners of Denver or any of the other dogs in the video as abusers without the facts.

      Thanks for voicing your opinion.

      • Kevin, thanks for your note. I agree with you about the guilt part. I don’t think dogs feel guilt as we think of it as humans. And I agree that Denvers posture was probably not caused by a discreet cue (but more of a response to the tone of voice and other aspects of the owner’s body language and demeanor). I do think dogs learn pretty easily what is okay and not okay in living with humans, based on experience and outcomes. And most dogs at one time or another do things we humans don’t like (ex. stealing the roast off the counter, shredding a pair of favorite shoes, digging up the recently planted flower garden), and if we catch them in the act, we (as emotional humans) respond to them with displeasure that may include a certain displeased tone of voice or some form of punishment outcome or timeout, or shunning, no matter how fair and humane. (That is unless we choose to let them run amuck and do whatever they please, which results in a host of other negative behaviors and lack of impulse control on the part of the dog). If they repeatedly commit the same act, and get in trouble for it, I think it is fair to say that over time they generally will learn that the act is a no no and hopefully don’t keep repeating it. But, sometimes the impulse to do whatever guilty pleasure activity it is, overrides the possible consequences…or the dog has too much pent up energy due to lack of exercise…or whatever, and negative behaviors result. I think it is also fair to say, that when caught in that act, they do seem to associate that it was a no no behavior that they got in trouble for before, and will then display a conciliatory behavior that (they learn) successfully disarms the displeased human. You might even catch them in the “act” and not say a word or do anything overt…and they present that “guilty looking” posture…they are so good at reading our body language and scent. They are very good at learning what does please us and gets them rewards in the form of treats, praise, attention, etc….and they can certainly learn and remember what behavior doesn’t please us and results in negative things, banishment, and reprimands. I also think they are very good at modifying our behavior and training us when most of us don’t even realize it. I don’t think they plot this out with any kind of premeditated intent at all, but they do learn what works through the experience of living with us. None of that means the dog is abused or treated badly in any way. They adapt to us and learn about our world, and often times shape our behaviors with theirs just as much as we try to shape theirs. (Example…the dog who growls at the human hand that tries to take the toy away quickly realizes he can influence the human’s behavior with his growl and trains the human to not touch his toy. I growl = hand withdrawn.) This is learned over time, and reinforced if the human keeps letting it happen.) In another scenario…when a dog growls at the hand reaching for the toy, and the hand doesn’t retract, but instead offers a treat that can be earned only when the toy is dropped…then the dog can learn to drop the toy and get rewarded for the trade. To get the toy back, the dog must offer a paw or something. And so on. If we do our job right, the dog offers behaviors to get what they want (but what we really want too.)

        Anyway: Here is a video of Denver’s owners talking about their dogs and the video. The dogs seem pretty well-loved.

        Having had Labbies for years…they do love to please and pretty quickly take on a conciliatory posture if they do an “oops” behavior (and NOT because they were EVER abused or traumatized). When Denver got in trouble in the past, she likely heard that shaming tone of voice from her human, and knows that banishment to the other room then follows. Labs love to be with their humans so banishment and a shaming tone does influence them. Somewhere in the mix she likely received some sort of subtle positive reinforcement for her particular expression (her humans smiled, or laughed, or softened their posture and were quick to pet her or whatever)…and she learned to respond with that behavior because it worked to diffuse the situation. Dogs in social packs do this with each other all the time and modify each other’s behavior.

  12. Thank you, Kevin. Such a painful video to watch, yet most people will see it as cute and be oh so glad their dog can feel guilty, because, as you said, then he surely knows what he “did” was wrong, and if he does it again it deserves punishment. SO SO sad.

    WAKE UP Good Morning America. Get the facts. You owe it to your guests and to your audience.

    Kate Jones

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