Karen B. London
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Do Dogs Feel Regret?
Are they truly sorry for mistakes?

In a recent article in The New York Times, John Tierney discusses recent research indicating that animals may experience feelings of regret. One scientist quoted in the article defines regret as the recognition of a missed opportunity.

Some of the most recent evidence that animals do feel regret includes the brain activity of monkeys who have made a choice that results in NOT receiving a highly prized class of juice and the fact that monkeys who fail to win the prize change their strategy. Does this also apply to canines? Do dogs, for example, feel sorry when they soil or chew on the rug? Do they regret playing so roughly that nobody wants to play with them anymore?

Most scientists now agree that animals are capable of much greater emotional complexity than was previously thought. A strong, longtime proponent of this idea is biologist Marc Bekoff, whose new book, co-authored with philosopher Jessica Pierce, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals discusses the evidence that animals are complex emotional beings with high moral intelligence. The authors argue that morality is something we share with animals and that it evolves.

It seems that discussions of emotion get repeated over time with the same result: Every time the emotions of animals, including dogs, are investigated with scientific rigor, they are found to be more complex than previously thought. Animal emotions as diverse as fear, jealousy, regret, anger, love and happiness come under discussion and always it seems that increasing evidence leads to greater acceptance that these emotions exists in species beyond just our own. In fact, a great many people now consider the existence of emotions in a variety of species to be quite obvious. It seems that the ongoing investigation of emotions in other animals provides proof of Arthur Schopenhauer’s famous quote: “All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; and Third, it is accepted as self-evident.”
Another great read to check out if you’re interested specifically in canine emotions is Patricia McConnell’s For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend.



Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by Kathy Konetzka-Close | June 15 2009 |

Isn’t it funny that the conclusion reached by this latest study continues to be so noteworthy? I mean, really—anyone who spends any length of time with dogs has to know, at a deep level, that they enjoy a rich emotional life. It’s part of the reason why we enjoy sharing our lives with them. I think part of the problem is that as the planet’s dominant species, we tend to believe that anyone who is not us is lesser than. So anyone who believes that their dogs are thinking/feeling beings gets labeled as anthropomorphic. But I’ve gotta say that living with a teenager is the same no matter what the species; my favorite is the bored sigh—I swear that if my dog was physically able to blow raspberries my way, he would. It cracks me up every time I hear it, and unless I’m really, really busy, it usually works—we go do something! And as an aside, I think I’ve read every book Patricia McConnell has written and all of them are just the best. If you haven’t read her books before, then do yourself a favor and do so. The one recommended here is especially good.

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