Dog Behaviorists: Your Dog's "Guilty Look" Isn't Real

by
posted on March 4, 2014
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Ever walk in the door and discover your dog with his head hung low and his sad, droopy eyes looking ever-so remorseful about something he's done? Well, according to some canine behaviorists, the dog isn't actually expressing shame—because he can't. Instead, they say, the dog's guilty look is a reaction to your displeasure.

Several studies appear to support the hypothesis, the first of which was conducted in 2009 by Alexandra Horowitz, psychology professor at Barnard College in New York City. For her study, she videotaped 14 dogs' reactions to a series of trials. In each case, the dog was told by its owner not to eat a treat, then the owner left the room. Sometimes the dogs ate the treat, other times they didn't; and sometimes the owners entered the room knowing whether the dog disobeyed, other times not.

"I found that the ‘look’ appeared most often when owners scolded their dogs, regardless of whether the dog had disobeyed or did something for which they might or should feel guilty," Horowitz told a CBS-Sacramento affiliate. "It wasn’t ‘guilt’ but a reaction to the owner that prompted the look. ...I am not saying that dogs might not feel guilt, just that the ‘guilty look’ is not an indication of it."

Hmm. I don't know. I'm no animal behaviorist, but I have owned a few dogs over the years. Seems to me that when I walk in the door and a dog has that "guilty look," it has to mean something. Like the time my springer grabbed a turkey fan (a Merriam's, mind you!) while I was at work and completely shredded it. How could his guilty eyes have been a reaction to me? I didn't even know why he was moping around until I discovered feathers in the bathtub.

What do you think: Is your dog's guilty look a real expression of shame or merely a reaction to your temper tantrum?

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