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.

Lisa Lyle Waggoner is the author of The Original Rocket Recall™: Teach Your Dog to Come. She’s a CPDT-KA, a CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), a Pat Miller Certified Trainer Level 2, Faculty for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of Dog Training and Behavior, a dog*tec Certified Professional Dog Walker and the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina. The company’s trainers enjoy providing virtual behavior consulting and training solutions to clients around the globe and offers coaching, mentoring and behavior case support for pet professionals.


6 thoughts on “Guilty Dog?”

  1. Carla Boudrot

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. It’s hard to explain this to people when it is posted and reposted and reposted as “guilty dog”. I even saw this video posted by DOG TRAINERS!!

    1. Thanks so much for your post, Carla. Yes, let’s do all we can to help others better understand their dogs. Please feel free to share.

  2. Yes! So many people are confused by pop culture’s take on “guilty” dogs. Remember the experiment in which dogs “acted guilty” for rubber dog poop? 🙂 It’s the human emotions at work here, not the dogs’!

  3. How do you explain a dog that looks guilty when it’s done something it knows it shouldn’t do (reprimanded previously) but you haven’t discovered the wrong doing yet? My 2 year old dog pooped in the back of my truck while we were driving to the park 5 minutes from our house. I should mention that the back of my truck has a cap. When I opened the door of the cap he looked guilty BUT i hadn’t even noticed the poop yet. Several times I have opened the back when he has not pooped and he doesn’t look guilty. He only looks guilty or “sheepish” when he’s done it. I don’t look mad when I open the back…unless he looks guilty!! Then I look for the poop.

    1. Cold Nose College

      Hi Sio,

      Indeed, if a dog has been reprimanded or punished previously for a certain behavior (such as inappropriate elimination), the dog has learned to expect the human to display the body language that appears when you’re reprimanding/punishing (think about how you look when you’re yelling at your dog…probably pretty scary). Dogs read even tiny muscle movements of our face. This sounds like a learned behavior from the previous times you have reprimanded him. If you have your dog a chance to eliminate before you put him in the truck, then it could be stress defecation. You might try using some DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) and spraying it in the truck 15 minutes before placing your dog in the truck.

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