It’s a typical scene many dog owners are familiar with: they come home from work only to find a mess of chewed up pillows around the house, so they angrily look at their dog, recognize a guilty look on his face and therefore decide to reprimand their dog telling him in an authoritative tone of voice what a bad boy he is. The dog, ears back, and tail tucked between the legs, walks away from the room with his head low in search of a safe place to retreat until his owner calms down. As much as this scene sounds familiar and appears to make sense, there’s something seriously amiss about it: the poor dog has likely no clue what he’s being punished for!
“How can my dog have no clue about what he’s being punished for when there’s undeniable proof all around him and there’s the word “guilty” written all across his face?” dog owners may ask.
If you have seen that “guilty look” before, rest assured you’re in good company. According to Scientific American, 74 percent of dog owners have a strong belief that their dogs experience guilt.
But first things first, let’s take a closer look at the “guilty face.”At a first glance, we may assume the dog knows he did something wrong because, the moment we notice the mess, our dog flattens his ears, tucks his tail under, lowers his body, or perhaps lifts a paw and avoids eye contact, behaviors we associate with guilt.
However, this is just our interpretation, a mere assumption that insinuates in our minds because as humans we may have behaved in a similar fashion in similar circumstances. The below reasoning is indeed quite common among many dog owners.
““I behave in a particular way when I feel guilty; my dog behaves in a similar way in equivalent circumstances; I know intuitively that my behaviour is motivated by guilt; therefore the behaviour I see in my dog is also accompanied by feelings of guilt” ~Bradshaw and Casey, 2007
In reality though, things are quite different when we step away from out anthropomorphic views, which means ascribing human traits to animals, and that often includes our canine companions.
First off, we know that dogs are capable of feeling several basic emotions such as joy, fear, anger, disgust, and likely, also love.
However, according to Stanley Coren, current research at this time seems to suggest that dogs are not capable of feeling more complex emotions such as guilt, pride and shame.
Turns out, these emotions “require a level of self-awareness that has been difficult to demonstrate even in chimpanzees” explain Bradshaw and Casey.
What Studies Say
There are several studies that have paved the path towards a better understanding of what’s behind that “guilty look” in dogs. Vollmer, back in 1977, conducted a study that suggested that a dog’s guilty behavior was simply a conditioned response elicited by the presence of the owner and a notable stimulus. In the study owners were asked to shred a paper, leave, and then come back home. Upon their return, dogs were found to show “guilt-like” behaviors despite the fact they did nothing wrong!
Another study conducted by Horowitz in 2009 revealed that the “guilty look” occurs as a dog’s response to owner cues, rather than an appreciation of a misdeed. Indeed, the “guilty look” tended to pop out much more when the owner scolded the dog and it was displayed with more intensity when the dog did not engage in any “transgression.“
A later study by J. Hecht, Á. Miklósi, M. Gásci in 2012, revealed that when dogs exhibited guilty behaviors upon greeting their owners, this wasn’t necessarily a reliable indicator of whether or not a dog engaged in a misdeed. And finally, a study conducted in 2015, by Ljerka Ostojić, Mladenka Tkalčić, Nicola S. Clayton, also showed further potential evidence that a dog’s “guilty look” doesn’t necessarily correspond with a dog’s knowledge of a misdeed.
So if my dog isn’t feeling guilt, why is acting as if he was? What’s likely happening in this scenario is that, our dogs, as some studies have demonstrated, are simply responding to our anger and frustration, and what we interpret as a “guilty look,” are just these dogs’ way to manifest an appeasement/fear response.
Dogs are very sensitive to our bodily cues and can easily sense when we’re feeling upset about something so they may respond accordingly, using their body language (what we interpret as the guilty look) in hopes of calming us down and hopefully avoid punishment.
But what about dogs who look guilty even before even being scolded? Another possibility is that dogs are reacting to things in their environment that have been associated in the past with the owner delivering punishment, explains Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CCAB) Stephanie Hedges in the book “Practical Canine Behaviour: For Veterinary Nurses and Technicians.”
The guilty look therefore becomes a learned, ritualized behavior that has been associated with certain environmental cues and punishment and that’s therefore used in hopes of avoiding it.
So the presence of a shredded paper on the floor could become a predictor of a potential upcoming scolding. “Evidence + Owner = Trouble” says primatologist Frans de Waal, in the book “Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals.” And according to the quote by de Waal below, that appeasing look seems to actually work to avoid it!
“In a questionnaire with study participants, I found that nearly 60% of owners surveyed reported that the dog’s “guilty look” led them to scold their dog less.”~Frans de Waal
So now that we know what’s truly going on with that guilty face, it’s time to understand why your dog has no clue of what he’s being scolded for.
Unless you caught your dog in the act, you aren’t punishing your dog for his misbehavior, but whatever he’s doing at the moment you punish him, explains dog trainer and behavior consultant Jolanta Benal.
So when you scold your dog upon opening the door saying “Hey! You managed to chew all the pillows, you bad, bad boy!” your dog will perceive he’s being punished for looking at you or walking towards the door to greet you or anything else he’s doing at the moment.
On top of that, since he most likely has no recollection of carrying out the forbidden act carried out several minutes or hours prior, you’ll come across as an unpredictable being who sometimes comes home in a good mood and other times not, which can be very confusing to a dog and stressful too.
So no wonder why he’ll be showing more and more appeasing behaviors the moment you open that door! You can almost hear these dogs say something in the terms of “Will my owner be happy or upset? When in doubt, better be safe and show some appeasement!”
The next question though is, how can the dog not recall carrying out the forbidden act done a couple of hours ago, but then he seems to have no trouble remembering the punishment you delivered triggering appeasement behaviors for your future homecomings? There’s likely a good explanation coming from a recent study focusing on an animal’s abilities on recollecting past events.
The study found that animals tend to have specialized memory systems that are hardwired to store “biologically relevant information” that’s related to their own survival, comfort and safety. So while your dog may not be able to recall playing fetch yesterday or chewing up your shoes hours ago, he’ll have a better time remembering where he buried his bone or any scary past events such as that painful jab at the vet or your angered face upon coming back home and finding the remote in pieces.
First off, it’s important to avoid engaging in harmful anthropomorphic beliefs as it can lead to misinterpretations and even the onset of behavior problems. “Such beliefs appear to contribute to the development of behavioural disorders in pets, for example, clinical experience suggests that the application of punishment by owners who attribute ‘guilt’ to their animals may unwittingly lead to compromised welfare” warn Bradshaw and Casey.
So what should dog owners do when they find their expensive shoes all chewed up or the couch throws and pillows reduced into a zillion pieces? A good place to start is to take a deep breath and count to 10, and seriously evaluate what measures can be taken to keep these items out of reach and prevent future occurrences.
Simply take a step back and evaluate what you can do to prevent your dog from making future mistakes, suggests Jolanta Benal. And while you are at it, take time to also evaluate what may have triggered the destructive behavior in the first place.
Maybe Rover is teething and needs more appropriate chew toys? Perhaps he needs more exercise and mental stimulation? Can stress be a trigger? For sure, those scoldings won’t teach your dog anything as Julie Hecht explains clearly in the quote below!
“Sadly, scolding dogs after the fact most often doesn’t decrease future bad behavior. If anything, the ‘guilty look’ could just become more exaggerated over time as your confused companion develops an anxious cycle of destruction and appeasement.” ~Julie Hecht
- Bradshaw, JWS; Casey, RA, Anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism as influences in the quality of life of companion animals, : Animal Welfare, Volume 16, Supplement 1, May 2007, pp. 149-154(6)
- Vollmer, P., 1977. Do mischievous dogs reveal their guilt? Vet. Med. Small Anim. Clin. 72, 1002–1005
- Horowitz, A. Disambiguating the guilty look: salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour. Behav. Process. 2009;81:447–452.
- J. Hecht, Á. Miklósi, M. Gásci, Behavioral assessment and owner perceptions of behaviors associated with guilt in dog, Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., 139 (2012), pp. 134–142
- Ljerka Ostojić, Mladenka Tkalčić, Nicola S. Clayton, Are owners’ reports of their dogs’ ‘guilty look’ influenced by the dogs’ action and evidence of the misdeed? Behavioural Processes, Volume 111, February 2015, Pages 97–100
- Stephanie Hedges, CABI Publishing; 1 edition (11 July 2014)
- Scientific American, The Guilty Looking Companion, retrieved from the web on June 19th, 2016
- Lind J, Enquist M, Ghirlanda S, Animal memory: A review of delayed matching-to-sample data, Behav Processes. 2015 Aug;117:52-8. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.11.019. Epub 2014 Dec 9.
- The Huffington Post, Sorry, But Your Dog Can’t Remember That Fun Game Of Fetch, retrieved from the web on June 19th, 2016.