An incredibly elaborate study reported on at this link was carried out in order to try and determine once and for all whether dogs really look “guilty” when they know they have done something wrong. The result: Well, you can read it yourself, but my perception of the conclusion is that it remains utterly inconclusive.
Most dog owners of-course will swear that when they come home and the dog has invaded the garbage or relieved himself on the carpet or otherwise made a mess, that the dog acts guiltily even before any scolding words are said. A guilty look in a dog is generally considered to consist of such factors as ears being down, head held low, perhaps averted eyes, and a meekly wagging tail.
Studies in the past have sought to debunk the idea that dogs are capable of feeling and exhibiting such guilt, by demonstrating that dogs will act this way when they’ve done nothing at all wrong, but are picking up negative vibes in one way or another from their owner. And this much is beyond question: dogs have a deep strain of meekness in their make-up. If one’s dog gets the impression somehow that it has aroused real anger in its owner, it is likely to immediately accept the justice of the owner’s rage and simply begin pleading for mercy, by means of all the signs mentioned above and more. (This is one of the reasons why those of us who love dogs love them so much, and find it almost impossible to be angry at them for more than a moment.)
However, the fact that dogs respond in this way even if they have not been disobedient at all does not prove that they are not capable of feeling and exhibiting guilt or shame in advance of sensing disapproval from their owners. It is the attempt to fully separate and parse these questions out which made the study mentioned above so incredibly complicated, but still, in the end, somewhat vain.
My own position is this: I do believe that dogs are capable of feeling a kind of guilt or shame—or, if you prefer, a fear of retribution in advance—when they have broken a clearly established rule. But I also believe there may not be as many “clearly established rules” in the dog’s head as we think. Sometimes, for example, we think the dog knows it’s not supposed to chew up the newspaper or the shoes, when in reality it does not really know this, and the guilty look is more a result of our anger than the dog’s knowledge. (Which is why the behavior occurs again and again despite the “guilt.”) I also believe dogs are incredibly sensitive to our anger, even to signs we give out that we’re not aware of, and so are very quick to go into the meek and guilty mode.
So, I choose to have it every which way. Dogs can feel and exhibit some form of guiltiness, but very often are merely adopting that posture prophylactically, so-to-speak, in order to minimize the approaching scolding or punishment.
And don’t be too hard on them.