Guilty Dog?

by Lisa Lyle Waggoner

A couple of videos have recently been making their way around the internet purportedly showing dogs looking “guilty.”  One video, aired on Good Morning America, was of a Lab “looking guilty” after having been accused of eating her way into a bag of cat treats.  It’s very, very unfortunate that Good Morning America is helping spread such inaccurate information about the ability of a dog to feel guilt.  Dogs don’t feel or know guilt.

That look your dog is giving you when you enter a room and find trash strewn around the floor or a prized item chewed is really only a response to your own body language and tone of voice.  Your dog is “reading” you.  If you could turn a mirror on yourself at that moment, imagine the disappointed or angry face you’d see.  Your dog is merely displaying appeasing body language in response to the scary human being in the room.  And yes, that would be YOU.

Dogs have acute vision and are masters of observation.  Their life depends upon it in the wild and to a certain extent, in our homes too.  What one of you hasn’t thought at some point in your life with your dog, “My dog can really read my mind!”  They’re incredibly brilliant creatures.  Just ask Dr. Brian Hare at the Canine Cognition Center of Duke University.  Because of the research he’s doing, we now know that a dog has the cognition of a three year old child.  However, instead of reading your mind, your dog is actually picking up on the most minute movements of your face and body.

In Alexandra Horowitz’s book, “Inside of a Dog, What Dogs See, Smell and Know,” you’ll learn that dogs have a higher “flicker fusion” rate than humans do, which is the rate at which retinal cells can process incoming light or “the number of snapshots of the world that the eye takes in every second.” This is one of the reasons dogs respond so well to our very subtle facial reactions or movements.  Horowitz, a Ph.D. and researcher of animal cognition, conducted a research study setting up conditions where the owner was misinformed as to whether the owner’s dog had really committed an offense. She was able to show the human tendency to attribute a guilty look to a dog wasn’t because the dog was indeed guilty.  It’s that the person sees the dog’s body language as “guilt” when they believe their dog has done something it shouldn’t have, even if the dog is completely innocent of any offense.  The study also showed that the dogs in the study who didn’t eat the treat “looked the most guilty” when they were scolded by their owners.

So the next time you think your dog is guilty, think again.  You’re merely comparing animal behavior to human behavior….anthropomorphism.  If you’d like to learn more about the human-dog relationship and how dogs see and experience their world vs. relying on our own natural prejudices, then you’ll enjoy Horowitz’s book, “Inside of a Dog, What Dogs See Smell and Know,” and you can also join our Mountains of Learning workshops where we help dog lovers understand dog body language.


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