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.
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.