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The Guilty Look: Can dogs really feel guilty?

Have you ever walked into a room, looked at your dog and thought “what have you done?”. Maybe there are obvious signs of destruction, or maybe you have to look around to see because the look on your dog’s face is screaming GUILTY.

When we believe our dogs are looking guilty, we can be tempted to scold them and punish their behaviours because surely if they are capable of feeling guilty, they must know they’ve done something wrong.

Given how emotionally advanced our dogs can be, it’s unsurprising that many of us think they can feel guilty and that they’re able to reflect on their actions. However, science is currently inconclusive about whether dogs can truly feel guilty and we have to be cautious about assuming our dogs know when they’ve done wrong.

We know without doubt, dogs pick up on our emotions, they are continually observing us and reading our signals, they can sense when our emotions change and they can anticipate how we may react or behave next. Most dogs can probably read their humans far better than their humans can read them. Research has shown that an owner’s behaviour can trigger a guilty look in dogs, so the question is do our dogs feel guilty or have they learnt to display ‘guilty’ body language based on their owner’s behaviour.

A few key comments and findings from research …

  • If a dog shows a guilty look because they know they have done wrong, they should be linking the wrongful action with looking guilty. This would mean the guilty look would only be shown when the dog has committed a wrongful action

  • Research has failed to find evidence that a dog will show a guilty look due to their actions, for example, after searching in a bin or eating food they’ve been told to ‘leave’ while the owner is absent

  • Research currently suggests it’s the owner’s behaviour which influences whether a dog shows a guilty look or not

  • Owner’s behaviour and use of scolding are the most significant predictors in the display of a guilty look, if there has been a history of scolding or punishment towards the dog, they are more likely to appear ‘guilty’, whether they were responsible for wrongful actions or not

  • It is difficult to find reliable neural markers for ‘guilt’, even in human research, so it’s not easy to establish certainty about whether dogs can feel guilt or not

Scientific Study

Horowitz, in 2009, took a specific look at guilt in dogs and set up an experiment where owners were asked to put their dog in a sit-stay and tell their dog to leave a dog biscuit before the owner then left the room. The owners were told this was a test of obedience, nothing at all to do with the emotion of guilt.

The dog biscuit would always be removed prior to the owner returning to the room, and the researcher would then tell the owner if the dog has succeeded and left the biscuit or had eaten the treats. If they were told that the dog had left the treat, the owners would greet the dogs. If they were told the dog had eaten the treat, the dog would get scolded.

After the owners left the room, one of two things happened. Either the researcher fed the treat to the dog or just took the treat away. But half of the time the treat was eaten, they told the owner of the dog they had obeyed and left it alone. Half of the time, the dog had left the treat like a good dog should the owners were told the dog had disobeyed and that they were to scold the dog.

Essentially, Horowitz found that the guilty look and the guilty body language from the dogs came less as a result of the eating of the biscuit than the result of the scolding. In fact, the dogs that hadn't eaten the biscuit and had no reason to feel guilty showed more of that behavioural body language that we might associate with guilt.

This leads to the conclusion that the guilty look results of actions towards the dogs, not the dogs' own internal emotions.

Why do dog’s look guilty?

If science can’t find any conclusive evidence that dogs are capable of feeling guilt, why do they appear to look guilty?

Dogs are a masters of body language and using this to communicate with us, they very quickly learn what works to diffuse situations and alter our reactions towards them, making themselves look vulnerable or giving us big ‘puppy eyes’ might change our reaction from one of anger to something more positive.

The guilty look is also often a sign of appeasement, submission or fear, the body language typically associated with these emotions can be interpreted by us as ‘guilt’. For example, head lowered, ears pulled back, body lowered or cowering, wide eyes with the whites showing.

In the context of knowing your dog has done something he shouldn’t, we can read these signals as ‘guilt’, but if you were to reprimand your dog when he has done nothing wrong, you are likely to see the same signals. Similarly, if you walk into the room feeling angry or frustrated, your dog may sense this and display these ‘guilty’ signals simply because they anticipate punishment may be coming.

Your dog may also start to pair certain scenarios with you punishing them, for example, if they’ve ripped up a toy or emptied the bin and you walk into the room and tell them off, in future they may associate the torn-up evidence with you punishing them.

The ‘guilty’ look will appear in these moments but not because they feel guilty, but because they feel scared of your reaction. Likewise, rubbing a puppy’s nose in it’s wee when they’ve had an accident in the house is not going to result in a puppy who feels guilty about toileting inside, rather they will become fearful of toileting in view of people or of how people will react when they see an accident inside.

Punishing your dog when you believe they know they are ‘guilty’ will only cause them to feel fearful of you in these situations. You will create a dog who is more confused and apprehensive about when you might suddenly react with anger or punishment. This can be a vicious circle because typically a dog who is feeling stressed and unsure of their owners reactions will display increased unwanted behaviours as they struggle to make sense of when punishment may come.

We can’t be sure whether dogs are able to think beyond the moment they’re living in, whether they can reflect on past actions and understand that you shouting at them now is because they ripped up the sofa an hour ago.

What we do know is that our dogs don’t behave badly in order to upset us or because they want to ruin our lives. If your dog destroys your house while you’re out, you need to consider why it’s really happening … perhaps he’s bored, or more likely, he’s anxious about being on his own. Likewise, your dog doesn’t steal food out the bin because he likes to wind you up, he does it because he’s an opportunist and has found it rewarding in the past.

Our dogs are motivated by what works for them, what they find reinforcing and what comes naturally to them. Rather than believing our dogs feel guilty for wrongful actions, we should be trying to understand why their unwanted behaviours are happening in the first place. When we consider this, we are able to teach our dogs alternative behaviours or manage their environment in ways which reduce unwanted behaviours occurring.

A few common examples where guilty looks may appear:

  • Raiding the bin or counter surfing – keep items out of reach, put the bin in a cupboard, don’t leave your dog unattended in areas where they steal items. Offer your dog enrichment toys, food activities or make their mealtimes more exciting with scatter feeding activities. Reward them when they choose to ignore temptations on the kitchen counters and reinforce good choices like settling on their bed

  • Destroying the house when alone – this is often a sign of separation anxiety so work through building your dog’s confidence with being alone. Get help from a qualified trainer who can assist with assessing your dog’s behaviour and understanding the reasons behind it

  • Weeing in the house – give your dog or puppy more toilet opportunities outside, and put it on cue so they know when/where to toilet, and reward them for toileting outside. Manage their environment inside, for example, use a crate or keep them on a lead until they’ve toileted outside. Take responsibility for accidents if you’ve missed the signals or you failed to supervise effectively and never punish your dog for an accident!

Remember our emotions can be contagious to our dogs, when we’re frustrated, stressed or tensions within the household are high, our dogs will be sensitive to this. They may look guilty more often because they too are feeling stressed and anxious, or they may display more unwanted behaviours as they try to cope with the emotions around them.

We can’t assume that our dogs know when they’ve done something wrong, instead we need to take the time to understand how they are feeling and why they are displaying unwanted behaviours. Once we start thinking like this, we can put training and management in place and teach alternative behaviours.

And remember, it’s always a good sign if you never see your dog looking guilty again!

Written by Naomi White

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