What really prompts the dog's "guilty look"

June 11, 2009

What dog owner has not come home to a broken vase or other valuable items and a guilty-looking dog slouching around the house? By ingeniously setting up conditions where the owner was misinformed as to whether their dog had really committed an offense, 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.

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 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.

This study sheds new light on the natural human tendency to interpret animal behavior in human terms. Anthropomorphisms compare animal behavior to , and if there is some superficial similarity, then the animal behavior will be interpreted in the same terms as superficially similar human actions. This can include the attribution of higher-order emotions such as guilt or remorse to the animal.

The editor of the special issue, Clive D.L. Wynne of the Department of Psychology, University of Florida, explained, “this is a remarkably powerful demonstration of the need for careful experimental designs if we are to understand the human-dog relationship and not just reify our natural prejudices about animal behavior.” He pointed out that dogs are the oldest domesticated species and have a uniquely intimate role in the lives of millions of people. Recent research on dogs has indicated more human-like forms of reasoning about what people know than has been demonstrated even in chimpanzees.

Source: Elsevier

Explore further: Penn State studies storm-phobic canines

Related Stories

Penn State studies storm-phobic canines

December 15, 2005

Penn State University researchers have determined pet owners can't resolve storm phobia in their dogs, but having a multi-dog home may reduce stress.

Dog 'laugh' silences other dogs

December 5, 2005

Washington state researchers report discovering what might be the sound of dog laughter. The scientists say the long, loud pant they recorded has a calming or soothing effect on the behavior of other dogs, ABC News reported.

Computer savvy canines

November 28, 2007

Like us, our canine friends are able to form abstract concepts. Friederike Range and colleagues from the University of Vienna in Austria have shown for the first time that dogs can classify complex color photographs and ...

Using 'dominance' to explain dog behavior is old hat

May 21, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- A new study shows how the behaviour of dogs has been misunderstood for generations: in fact using misplaced ideas about dog behaviour and training is likely to cause rather than cure unwanted behaviour. ...

Recommended for you

Plague likely a Stone Age arrival to central Europe

November 22, 2017

A team of researchers led by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History has sequenced the first six European genomes of the plague-causing bacterium Yersinia pestis dating from the Late Neolithic ...

How to cut your lawn for grasshoppers

November 22, 2017

Picture a grasshopper landing randomly on a lawn of fixed area. If it then jumps a certain distance in a random direction, what shape should the lawn be to maximise the chance that the grasshopper stays on the lawn after ...

Ancient barley took high road to China

November 21, 2017

First domesticated 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, wheat and barley took vastly different routes to China, with barley switching from a winter to both a winter and summer crop during a thousand-year ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (3) Jun 11, 2009
There have been occasions where my (or a friend/family member's) dog has done something they know they have been admonished for in the past. When I or the owner arrives home, the dog is of course anxious and happy to see the owner. Immediately upon realizing the owner has noticed the perceived transgression, however, the dog already starts slouching and "looking guilty" before anyone even shows any reactions. Examples are knocking over an object, stealing people food, etc.

Is this "guilt" scenario because the dog actually feels guilt at knowing the owner will be upset, or because the dog has been conditioned to understand the owner will be upset with it for the action and thus expects to be admonished?

I have an inclination toward the latter, because although these things have occured, many times I or the owner have not even attempted to correlate the incident to the dog and thus not given it any admonishment whatsoever. Interesting.
not rated yet Jun 11, 2009
Thus the dog%u2019s guilty look is a response to the owner%u2019s behavior, and not necessarily indicative of any appreciation of its own misdeeds.

This study sheds new light on the natural human tendency to interpret animal behavior in human terms.

How is this any different from how humans learn what is right or wrong and their learned behaviours of how to deal with the consequences of having done something that will upset others?
Maybe they are not at the level where they will feel guilt for [b]not[/b] doing something ,as humans are wont to do, but can realise if they do something they have been conditioned to beleive is bad they will behave so as to minimise the fallout (e.g. slouching and looking guilty to show their subservience).
As simonsez they display this behaviour without any reaction at times.
not rated yet Jun 11, 2009
I TOLD you the cat did it..... :(
5 / 5 (3) Jun 11, 2009
No. My dog always greets me at the door when I return.

However, once, he had an accident (the stinky kind) and he did not greet me at the door, instead he was "hiding" in the back of the kitchen. He was not admonished--and never has been, because he does not do this except when he's sick, but he exhibited the "slinky dog" or "guilty look" when I found him.

Another time he did not greet me at the door. Instead, he was downstairs, and the kitchen garbage was strewn about upstairs. Again, slinky, guilty doggie.

In neither case did I express any body language for the dog to pick up--he was in a completely different room when I returned (which is highly unusual in itself.)

Dogs have feelings. They may not be as advanced as a human's, but dogs--and many other higher mammals obviously have feelings, and they can exhibit them in a variety of ways.

5 / 5 (2) Jun 11, 2009
I have a dog door, on those occasions in which I have forgotten to close the closet door and the dog got into the garbage she does not greet me at the door when I come home and then act guilty when I realize what she had done. Instead she goes out the dog door as I pull into the driveway. I know when I am not greeted to start looking for damage. Jus saying.
not rated yet Jun 11, 2009
x646d63 and tk1 are right. It may be that some owners misunderstand what some dogs are showing, some of the time. But this study is as much a test of owners as it is of anything!

There are plenty of people who believe there is "some truth" to astrology, too. They point out that it is "right" some of the time, and don't seem to be too concerned when it's "wrong". An insensitive or overly-imaginative owner is prone to the same kinds of wish fulfillment.

Not to mention that dogs are smart enough to fool people sometimes, if they choose.
5 / 5 (4) Jun 11, 2009
When one of my kids was ten he ask me, "Dad, do dogs lie?" I asked him if he'd ever started up the stairs and heard the dog jump off the upstairs sofa? (the dog was NOT allowed on the sofa). His response was "yes." And where was the dog when he got upstairs? "Laying on her rug asleep." I asked, was she really asleep? "No." So, then, do dogs lie?
Dogs certainly know the difference between behavior acceptable to their owners and behavior unacceptable to their owners (humans would say right and wrong). Dogs are much more cognitively complex than "scientists" prefer to believe.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.