Is your dog guilty?

It’s really common to hear owners say things like, “he knows he has done something wrong,” or “I can tell when she has done something wrong,look at that guilty face!” It is easy to humanise our dogs because we see them as part of the family. But while your dog knows he is in trouble, he doesn’t always know what it is that he did wrong.

When you see a ‘guilty’ look on the dogs face and the dog shows other signs of perceived guilt, the dog is actually showing appeasement behaviours. Dogs can read body language better than we can. They can also sense the slightest change in your stance, voice or posture. This means that if you even suspect that the dog has done something wrong when you walk into the room, the dog will pick up on your emotion and offer calming signals to try and avoid any conflict. This especially happens when a dog has been scolded when the owner has returned home in the past. It can quickly lead to the dog expecting to be in trouble as soon as the owner returns home.

If a dog has been scolded when she has had an accident in the house, the dog can learn that she gets in trouble each time the owner arrives and there is faeces in the room. She doesn’t necessarily make the connection that she is in trouble to making the mess. However, this can lead to dogs eating their own poo to get rid of the thing that is always there when they have gotten in trouble!

Alexandra Horowitz, Assistant Professor from Barnard College in New York, uncovered the origins of the “guilty look” in dogs in the recently published “Canine Behaviour and Cognition” Special Issue of Elsevier’s Behavioural Processes. This study was able to show that humans will quickly assign a dog’s body language to being a display of guilt when they believe the dog has done something wrong, even if the dog is completely innocent. 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, some of the dogs were given the treat while others were not. But the experimenters told some owners that their dog had eaten the treat while other owners were told their dog behaved. The thing was, what the owners were told wasn’t true in every case. Whether the dog showed a ‘guilty’ display did not match up to whether they had actually taken the treat or behaved. In fact, many of the dogs who behaved perfectly were the ones who looked the most guilty.

So remember your dog thinks differently to a human so that you can always be fair with your discipline. Happy training!

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