Can dogs really feel bad about naughty behavior and give themselves away with their expressions? You might think your dog has a “guilty” look because he knows he has done something wrong, even if you just came home and the misbehavior occurred hours ago. But others quite reasonably say that it’s simple dog psychology — dogs have this expression only because they read the body language of their owner and know you are unhappy. What are the facts?
The “guilty look” is a combination of avoiding eye contact and having a hunched or cowering behavior. Psychologist and animal behaviorist Alexandra Horowitz did a simple study to tease apart the two possible explanations. Dogs were either encouraged to, or prevented from, eating a food treat that they had been instructed not to eat. The study balanced whether the dog ate the treat and whether the owner scolded them, so that different dogs experienced four possible combinations. Horowitz found that dogs responded to the scolding, not whether they had broken the rule.
This suggests that obedient dogs can detect your emotional state and respond to it so quickly that it can seem they are expressing their own emotions when they are really only responding to yours. Psychologists call this ability to read even unconscious emotional cues the “Clever Hans Effect,” after a horse who was so good at reading people that he could tap out the correct answers to arithmetic problems with a hoof. (Basically he would tap until the audience unconsciously relaxed because he had reached the right number, and then stop.) So it seems we cannot distinguish guilt for what would more properly be called “appeasement” behavior, where the dog knows we are unhappy and wants to reconcile with us.
A similar study found that dog owners tend to be able to tell whether their dog ate a forbidden treat when they came back into the room. In this case, whether or not the dog ate the treat was left entirely to the dog, which may have caused a more authentic feeling of obedience or transgression for the dog. And while the dog’s behavior was not a particularly reliable indicator of whether they had misbehaved, there was some correlation between actual guilt and classic “guilty” behaviors.
So the truth of the matter may be somewhere in the middle. Dogs can feel and express guilt, but that often they are actually responding to our body language. I think we sometimes don’t recognize how heavily our dogs rely on us. Various studies show how they immediately look to us when coming across strange objects, and when given a choice between where they see food with their own eyes, and where we tell them it is, they will believe us. This means that if you give your dog any reason to act apologetic, whether she has broken a rule or not, that is what she will do.
I do think that it is possible for dogs to have a genuine guilty feeling and guilty look. For example, I do not permit my dog Avon to eat things he finds outside on the ground, but I have a neighbor who for some bizarre reason throws takeout leftovers out his window onto the grass. If Avon finds this food without me immediately noticing, he will hold it in his mouth and only chew it when I am not looking. Once he found a dead fish on the beach and ran away so I couldn’t take it off him.
In both cases I was immediately alerted to Avon’s behavior because of his furtive body posture. So I do not think it is necessarily an anthropomorphic error to think dogs can feel guilt or have a guilty expression. But you need to know the entire context in which the behavior occurs and respond to the immediate situation and behavior, not make inferences about the dog’s memories of events that may have happened hours ago.
Even when a dog has transgressed and might be aware of it in the moment, this does not mean scolding him is the right thing to do. When I came home one day and found Avon had destroyed the bottom half of the bathroom door (perhaps after being accidentally shut inside), was there really any point in scolding him about it, even if he knew that was what I was doing? I have no idea what was going on when he did it, and even if he just wanted to chew something, is it not my job to provide him with suitable things to chew on when I am away?
If you come home and find your dog has done something destructive, you have to just try and find the humor and the lesson in it. It’s crazy what dogs will do sometimes, and it is our job to not leave our dogs alone until they become bored and destructive. We need to create an environment that gives them appropriate outlets for their natural doggie behaviors—making the good behaviors the easy and fun thing to do, rather than having to constantly warn and scold them about the forbidden behaviors.
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About the author: Emily Kane is a New Zealand-born animal behaviorist of the throw-back radical behaviorist type, albeit with a holistic-yuppie-feminist-slacker twist. She spent many years as an animal behavior researcher and is now more of an indoor paper-pushing researcher. Her early dog-related education came from Jess the Afghan Hound and Border Collies Bandit and Tam. It is now being continued by her own dogs and extended dog family and some cats (and her three aquatic snails Gala, Granny and Pippin — they think of themselves as dog-esque).