Megan Brooks CDT
That Guilty Look
Perhaps every dog owner has, at one time or another come home and discovered their favorite shoes or even the entire couch destroyed by the family dog at some point during the day. What person wouldn’t be a bit angry? So you scold the dog who responds with a very guilty look; hanging his head, licking his lips and maybe even rolling over on his back. You take this look of guilt as a sure sign that he not only understands what he has done wrong but he is actually feeling remorse, right?
What if I told you that guilt is a higher order emotion and that dogs are not capable of feeling it? And that you are falling victim to anthropomorphism, the act of putting human emotions on animals.
Dogs live completely in the here and now. They cannot make a connection between a behavior and a consequence unless the consequence is delivered right when the behavior occurs. If Rusty grabs the steak off the counter and no one sees him do it there is nothing you can do. If you were to scold him now, he would connect the scolding with whatever he was doing at that moment.
Well, what about that guilty look? The look we humans perceive as “guilt” is actually a combination of submissive gestures and pacifying, or calming signals meant to appease your anger. In the dog pack once a dog has submitted, the reprimand will cease. In your case, if you continue scolding your dog, he may try to send you more calming signals such as lip licking, rolling over and even the ultimate submissive gesture, urinating.
A study was done at Barnard College in New York. Dr. Alexandra Horowitz PhD tested 14 dogs and their owners for the owners interpretation of the dogs so-called “guilty look”. The dogs were not to touch the forbidden treats but the owners were asked to leave the room while some dogs were given the forbidden treat. When the owners returned they were told whether or not their dogs had eaten the forbidden treat, some owners were given misinformation and told that their dog had eaten the treat even when it hadn’t. What Dr. Horowitz found was that the “guilty look” had little to do with whether the dog ate the treat. The “guilty look” was most prominent when owners were upset at their dogs for eating the treat, whether or not they had actually done it.
Last Updated: Monday, December 14, 2009