the-guilty-lookIf you have dogs, you’ve seen it, “the guilty look.”  You see a mess and look at your furry family member, maybe ask if they did it and you get it and it confirms their guilt.  The question is, is your dog actually feeling guilty or is “the guilty look” a response to you; your tone and attitude?

I’ve always believed that it’s just a response to a person’s tone and attitude because I don’t believe a dog can feel “guilt” as we know it.  I can get that look from mine just by using a certain tone of voice regardless of the words whether my babies have done anything wrong or not.  I think more what we are seeing is nervousness, worry or even fear, in response to us.

When you think about it, it really follows along with the thinking that unless you actually catch a dog “in the act” of doing something wrong, it makes no sense to correct them because dogs don’t “know” right from wrong except by training. If a dog has an “accident” and you discover it hours later, admonishing them will only create fear and rather then further the housebreaking will actually set it back. Same goes with dogs getting into the trash, chewing shoes or other items, etc. They don’t “remember” or associate the forbidden act with the admonishment.

Now a study conducted by Alexandra Horowitz, Assistant Professor from Barnard College in New York and recently published in the “Canine Behaviour and Cognition” Special Issue of Elsevier’s Behavioural Processes seems to back up my thought on this issue.

Horowitz was able to show that the human tendency to attribute a “guilty look” to a dog was not due to whether the dog was indeed guilty. Instead, people see ‘guilt’ in a dog’s body language when they believe the dog has done something it shouldn’t have – even if the dog is in fact completely innocent of any offense.

During the study, owners were asked to leave the room after ordering their dogs not to eat a tasty treat. While the owner was away, Horowitz gave some of the dogs this forbidden treat before asking the owners back into the room. In some trials the owners were told that their dog had eaten the forbidden treat; in others, they were told their dog had behaved properly and left the treat alone. What the owners were told, however, often did not correlate with reality.

Whether the dogs’ demeanor included elements of the “guilty look” had little to do with whether the dogs had actually eaten the forbidden treat or not. Dogs looked most “guilty” if they were admonished by their owners for eating the treat. In fact, dogs that had been obedient and had not eaten the treat, but were scolded by their (misinformed) owners, looked more “guilty” than those that had, in fact, eaten the treat. Thus the dog’s guilty look is a response to the owner’s behavior, and not necessarily indicative of any appreciation of its own misdeeds. (Science Daily)

So next time your dog gives you “the guilty look,” instead of scolding your canine companion, think about what you did. 🙂

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