We humans have a diverse set of emotions. They include but are not limited to happiness, sadness, anger, fear and of course guilt. It is common for dog owners to project these same emotions onto their dogs, insisting their four-legged companions are capable of the same feelings. The technical term for this “humanization” of dogs is anthropomorphism. Often, when people experience behavior issues with heir dogs, they will say the dog knew what he was doing was wrong because he looked guilty. These looks of “guilt” include tucked tails, slinking bodies that crouch towards the floor and big whale eyes.
New research out of Barnard College in New York debunks the common belief that dogs experience a sense of guilt because they have done something wrong. With a clever experiment, assistant professor Alexandra Horowitz discovered the “guilty looks” were stemming from the human reaction to what was assumed the dog had done. In her experiment, Harowitz had dog owners leave their pets in a room with a piece of food on a table. The owners told the dogs to leave the food alone before they left the room. Harowitz would then remove the food from the table or allow the dog to eat it. When the dog owners returned to discover the food was gone, Harowitz noted the dogs presented the same “guilty” look regardless of whether they had eaten the food or if it had been removed by the experimenter. She found the greater influence on the degree of the guilty look was the human’s reaction. When the people scolded their pets for being disobedient, it triggered stronger reactions from the dogs.
Our dogs are sensitive beings, often in tune with every discrete movement and facial expression we make. Dating back to experiments with Clever Hans, the counting horse, we have learned that subtle cues give animals all of the information they need to elicit appropriate responses. Our dogs quickly learn that appeasement signals that appear as “guilty looks” usually work to ward off harsh punishments from disgruntled humans. Next time your dog “looks guilty” take a step back and examine what you may be communicating with your body language or behavior to elicit this response from your dog instead of assuming your dog knows it has done something wrong.