Entry 489: Why Dogs Don’t Go to Confession

Welcome to another edition of “Stupid Canine Studies Conducted By Researchers Who Have Never Seen a Dog in the Real World.”

I’ve previously covered actual studies that…

  • Purported to find that dogs can only remember stuff for two minutes.
  • Tried to determine whether dogs are moral through the use of puppets.
  • Attempted to discern meaning in dogs’ facial expressions.

Now it seems that researchers at the University of Cambridge believe dogs do not have the guiltyrileycapacity to feel guilt or shame. Their study concludes that what we humans believe is a pet doing the canine equivalent of plea bargaining is actually just a reaction to his owner’s stern voice.

This does not immediately explain why a dog, when caught in the act of shredding the entire Sunday newspaper, puts her tail between her legs before her human can even recover from his speechlessness to scold her. But the researchers have covered that, too:

“Given reports that ‘guilty look’ behaviours are shown also in the absence of being scolded, we investigated whether the dogs’ own actions or the evidence of a misdeed might serve as triggering cues. We manipulated whether or not dogs ate a ‘forbidden’ food item and whether or not the food was visible upon the owners’ return. Based on their dogs’ greeting behaviour, owners stated that their dog had eaten the food no more than expected by chance. In addition, dogs’ greeting behaviours were not affected by their own action or the presence or absence of the food. Thus, our findings do not support the hypothesis that dogs show the ‘guilty look’ in the absence of a concurrent negative reaction by their owners.”

First, notice how the paragraph above supports my hypothesis that canine researchers don’t own dogs. They say, “Given reports…” In other words, they’ve never seen an actual dog in action! Second, when will people in England learn how to spell?

And third, without benefit of an expensive study in a British school where the scientists probably wear powdered wigs, I will hypothesize what is really going on and leave it to my fellow dog lovers to agree or disagree.

Here’s my theory: dogs do experience guilt, but not in the same way humans do. If a13097016_89c4b6704a[1] human cheats on his wife, for instance, he may feel guilty about it even if his spouse never finds out or his data on Ashley Madison is not hacked. That is why Catholics go to confession and Jews…well, we just pass our guilt on to the next generation.

A dog, on the other hand, will only think he’s guilty if he’s caught while he’s on the dining room table dismembering the turkey at Thanksgiving. If he’s still got that giblet in his mouth when you find him, I guarantee he’ll feel and look guilty whether you scold him or not, unless this is behavior you have encouraged for some reason, such as your spouse is a horrible cook and this way you don’t have to eat the turkey. Also, your dog’s guilt won’t necessarily stop him from swallowing.

If, however, by the time the members of the extended family finally stop grilling poor cousin Melissasneakers about her life choices long enough to look at the table, the dog has abandoned the carcass and is now sleeping off his tryptophan overdose, he will not feel guilty. Indeed, if you believe that memory study I mentioned earlier, he will have already forgotten the turkey and moved on to that rabbit he chases in his dreams, when his legs move comically while he’s dozing. Of course, when confronted by the crime scene, the humans will quickly narrow the list of suspects down to the dog and 500-pound Uncle Otto, but then damning evidence is found: a gnawed drumstick on the back porch which is probably not Otto’s doing.

So then the family, in a rare instance of unanimity, gathers around the peacefully snoozing pup to admonish him. And that’s when things will play out exactly as the researchers proposed: the dog will exhibit the body language of guilt in reaction to his human’s “naughty boy” voice, even though he has no idea why he’s being yelled at because, after all, it’s not like he caught the damn rabbit.

Anyway, that’s my theory.

They Love Us, They Really Love Us…

kissIn another stupid study, scientists at Emory University in Atlanta set out to determine if dogs really love their humans or if they’re just acting like they do so you’ll give them a bite of your pie. To do this, the researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to see what parts of the dog’s brain are stimulated by strangers, familiar dogs, and familiar humans.

The big breakthrough here was that the scientists figured out how to get a fully-conscious dog to lay still in an MRI machine. Our puppy Riley (the sheltie puppy in most of this post’s photos) recently needed an MRI (don’t ask) and he had to be fully anaestheticized for them to do it.  They should have anaestheticized me before they gave me the bill.

Getting back to the study, when researchers want to see what parts of the human brain are mristimulated by various things, they show them photos or videos to see how the brain responds. For instance, if you wanted to know what parts of the brain are stimulated during sex, you would show the subject pornography.*  But since canines don’t react to videos, not even if the actors are doing it doggie style, you have to use scents.

So the researchers at Emory “allowed twelve dogs from ten breeds to smell scents from strangers and people they knew and from other dogs.”

According to the report:

“The dogs responded more intensively to the smell of familiar humans than anything else, with scans showing the region of the brain known as the caudate nucleus was more active for this smell than even familiar dogs.”

In humans, the caudate is the region of the brain that reacts to visual beauty, and it is known to be intensely active in the early stages of romantic love.

Isn’t that nice?

An isn’t it also just a little bit creepy when we’re talking about your dog?

See you soon.

*They already know this, so don’t try to volunteer for any studies.

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