Not Guilty

June 12, 2009 at 12:07 am 2 comments

In another bit of non-news to experienced dog trainers, a Barnard College study shows that that guilty look you see when your dog misbehaves is rooted in your mind – not his. reports:

Dog owners have no one to blame but themselves when they think their canine pals give them that familiar “guilty look.”

You see guilt, but the dog doesn’t necessarily feel it, a new study shows.

By setting up conditions where the owner was misinformed as to whether his or her dog had really committed an offense, researcher Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College in New York uncovered the origins of dogs’ allegedly downcast mugs.

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.

This has been one of my pet peeves (pun intended) for years.  Dog owners regularly tell me that they’re certain that their dog knows he’s misbehaving when he goes countersurfing, gets into the trash, barks at the window and engages in other undesirable behaviors when they’re not around.  As proof they offer the way he cringes and looks guilty when they come home and find the mess.

Dogs are brilliant observers and interpreters of human body language. You’re the center of your dog’s life and every nuance of your behavior is fascinating to him.  The contextual cues he picks up as he observes your behavior and the environment around him help your dog learn what to expect in a given situation.  Steven R. Lindsay writes about conditioned fear responses (like those that might make a dog cringe) in Volume One of his Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training:

Contextual cues serve an occasion-setting function signaling those times and places the feared event is likely to occur.

Cues like the presence of dog poop or trash on the floor when you come home can function as contextual cues triggering a fearful response in your dog if he’s experienced aversive events (like being punished for something he didn’t understand) in this context before. Your dog’s not cringing because he feels guilty for misbehaving – he’s cringing because the context of the situation causes him to anticipate that unpleasant things will happen.  As published in LiveScience:

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.

And again, quoting Lindsay’s 2000 book (and demonstrating that this is not a new idea):

Although dogs can encode experiences and retrieve memories, they are most likely unable to form conceptual constructs and symbolic representations of events from which to deduce causal inferences about the distant past or future. Consequently, appealing to a canine ability to extrapolate from a present consequence to a past action does not help to explain the dog’s appearance of guilt. Although a dog may be able to associate the presence of a destroyed item with the owner’s anger, it is unlikely that the culpable action is directly influenced by the owner’s disapproval of abusive efforts. Unfortunately, however, the owner reads the dog’s guilt as if it was related to a remote action present in the dog’s mind at the time of the punishment.

In other words, punishing your dog for something he did before you came home is a pointless, mean-spirited waste of time.  If you really need to let that anger out – roll up a newspaper and smack yourself upside the head for being the clueless dolt who left him in a situation he wasn’t ready to handle.  Then hug your dog, clean up your house and get started on that long-overdue training program.


Entry filed under: behavior science, dog training, dogs.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Marjorie  |  June 12, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    Yes. …Nailed it. Experienced dog trainer here. Never saw a dog “look guilty” in 30 years of training.

    I must admit, though, I always suspected the belief in a “guilty look” was down to owners who punished their dogs for behaving in undesirable ways. When the human sees the dog has done something he/she doesn’t like, they may have, in the past, thrown a infantile tantrum and maybe yelled at the dog, yanked the dog’s throat, banished/isolated it, or even struck it. No wonder when the owner gets into a mood that telegraphs he/she is about to inflict punishment, many dogs will cower and look fearful or submissive. This kind of owner may then view that posture as “guilty”. (…Even though, “There is no guilt in nature.”)

    I’m pleased to read that although it is mostly the case the dog is reacting to the owner’s demeanor, the “look” is sometimes more owner-projection than the dog feeling as though it’s about to be torn a new one.

    As for my training techniques, I don’t yell at dogs, yank them around, isolate them, strike them, or really punish them at all. I don’t intimidate dogs in order to get them to do what I want and it might be one of the worst realizations ever for me to discover a dog was in any way fearful of me.

    If dogs do something I don’t like, I use that opportunity to T-R-A-I-N them to do what I would prefer. If anything, a dog doing something I don’t like is a clear indication I have failed some area of training. I don’t blame dogs for not magically understanding what humans want from them. It’s only fair to teach a dog what is considered appropriate behaviour before ever feeling as though you have a right to be upset by the naughty behavior. (Even then, undesirable behavior is evidence of failed training or supervision by the human.)

    But, I’d have to say, the thread that weaves through all my training philosophies is, simply, I don’t blame dogs. Dogs are dogs. They’re great the way they are. If we want them to do something else, it is up to us to train them. Wishing, hoping, half-hearted/inconsistent attempts, and doing nothing, are not ‘training’. …Never will be. 😉

    So when someone comes to me and tells me the dog is chewing his/her shoes or soiling in the house, I naturally ask about teaching the dog to chew appropriate things, adequate exercise (to combat boredom that often leads to chewing), and how consistent the housetraining has been. You know…ask the human what the human is doing.

    I tend to stay away from dog training television shows because I find them frustrating to watch. But I nearly jumped through my t.v’s screen during a recent episode where a woman who hadn’t spent a moment’s effort training her dog, began yanking it and screaming at it, calling it names, and generally acting like a fool. When the t.v. trainer had his 13-year-old neice walk the dog, and it behaved properly, the woman should’ve been shamed into admitting she was the problem, not the dog. But she didn’t. The show ended with comments about how the dog has improved. …Not a word about it being wholly and completely about the owners’ actions.

  • 2. Lisa  |  June 12, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    I confess that I do call my dog’s calming behaviors a ‘guilty look’ sometimes. (I usually call it the perp walk or a walk of shame.)

    But that’s just shorthand for the more accurate and more boring description ‘sending calming signals in an attempt to mitigate anticipated punishment.’ We don’t yell at our dog as discipline, but we weren’t there for her first three years, so odds are good someone has in her past, and that’s why she does it. I don’t actually think that her ‘guilty looks’ are a manifestation of some deep sense of personal shame for failing to live up to some moral code. I know it just means, “Please don’t be mad.” And I know it means that I have to go check the house to see what she’s trying to calm me down about.

    Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think toddlers feel ‘guilt’ in that way, either; nor do all too many fully functioning adult humans. So when I use the same or similar terms to describe animal and human behavior, it’s not so much that I’m anthropomorphizing animals, but that I think of human behaviors as instinctual and selfishly motivated too, and because while they aren’t identical in motivation, there are many parallels in the behaviors that are just easier to talk about using more familiar and more human-focused terms. Humans do have greater potential to incorporate lessons into a larger moral foundation. But some of them don’t, and even those who do start out from a position of innocent selfishness. And I’ll generally use the more widely understood, if sloppier, term to describe the superficial behaviors.

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