Innocent until proven guilty: do dogs feel guilty?

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You walk in your front door and instead of the usual full-body-wag greeting you’re accustomed to, Rover appears at your feet, head bowed, shoulders hunched, ears back. You glance around and notice the contents of your garbage strewn about. You assume his greeting is because he feels guilty for this egregious misdeed and that he knows he did wrong, but are you right? Science and the study of canine cognition suggest not.

A brilliant study from the Horowitz Cognition Lab at Barnard examined the behaviours people often associate with ‘guilt’ in dogs:  head bowed, ears back, hunched posture, raised paw, furred brow, avoidance of eye contact (either by closing eyes or looking from an angle) and submissive grinning. The study (Disambiguating the guilty look: salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour) concluded that many of those behaviours commonly believed to be evidence of guilt are actually a response to our own behaviour and an attempt to appease us  – a waving of the white flag, if you will.

The study was fairly complex but in a nutshell, illustrated that when dogs who had done nothing wrong were even mildly reprimanded, they actually offered MORE of the above-mentioned ‘guilty’ behaviours than dogs who did in fact disobey a simple instruction. This provided strong evidence that dogs are responding to our own cues and the confusion caused by an unfounded  scolding, rather than demonstrating anything we might call remorse.

Watch the following clip and see how many of the above mentioned behaviours you can spot in each dog; note that in both cases the dogs were ‘set up’ and had done nothing ‘wrong’.

You may have already seen the clip of Denver when it went viral on YouTube, you may have even chuckled. Watching it now, knowing how hard he was working at avoiding punishment, it might even be uncomfortable to watch.

Hold on! you say. I have never punished my dog so there is no reason for him to try to appease me. Well that depends on what your dog considers punishing or even mildly uncomfortble. If you’ve read the earlier Weekly Wag article Is your dog smarter than a chimpanzee?, you know that our dogs are masters at reading even our most subtle body language. So a stern look, some mild apprehension  at what you might find upon returning home or even a ‘What did you do?’ said with a wink and a smile can be interpreted by your dog as Unhappy Human. And if you have ever come home and reprimanded Rover for something he did hours ago, you may just have taught him to be apprehensive about your return rather than be remorseful about something he probably doesn’t even remember doing.

While I make my living helping people teach their dogs to be well mannered members of the family, I don’t believe fear has any place in this process. So the next time Rover gives you ‘the guilty look’, try giving him your most heartfelt ‘Good dog!‘ with a kind pat and assure him that he need never be afraid of you (and maybe next time you’re out, leave him in a room where he can’t get into any trouble and provide him with a wonderfully stuffed Kong to entertain himself with!)