Is the ‘Guilty Dog’ Look a Myth?

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Dog owners have nobody to blame but themselves when they think their canine buddies present them that familiar “guilty look.”

You see guilt, however the dog does not necessarily feel it, a new study demonstrates.

By establishing conditions where the owner was misinformed regarding whether his or her dog had actually committed an offense, researcher Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College in New York exposed the origins of dogs’ apparently downcast mugs.

Here’s a funny “guilty dog” video compilation:

Horowitz could show that the human propensity to attribute a guilty look to a dog wasn’t as a result of whether the dog was without a doubt guilty. Rather, people observe guilt in a dog’s body language whenever they think the dog has done anything it should not have, even though the dog is in fact entirely innocent of any offense.

Throughout the videotaped study, owners were requested to leave the room following ordering their dogs not to eat a delicious treat. When the owner was absent, Horowitz gave some of the dogs this not allowed treat before asking the owners back into the room. In a few trials, the owners were informed that their dog had eaten the forbidden treat; in others, they were told their dog had behaved appropriately and left the treat alone. What the owners were told, nevertheless, frequently failed to correlate with reality.

Whether or not the dogs’ attitude included aspects of the “guilty look” had little to do with whether the dogs had in fact eaten the forbidden treat or not.

Dogs appeared most “guilty” if they were admonished by their owners for eating the treat. Actually, dogs that had been obedient and had not eaten the treat, but were scolded by their (not knowledgeable) owners, looked more “guilty” than those that had, actually, eaten the treat.

Hence the dog’s guilty look is a reaction to the owner’s behavior, and not actually a sign of any understanding of its own violations.

The research involved 14 dogs and their 14 owners. The 6 male dogs and 8 female dogs included six mongrels and eight purebreds – a Brussels griffon, two dachshunds, a Tibetan terrier, a cockapoo, a shi-tzu, a wheaten terrier and a Labrador retriever.


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