'Guilty  Dog' Look Is a Myth
Credit: stockxpert
Credit: stockxpert

Dog owners have no one to blame but themselves when they think their canine pals give them that familiar "guilty look."

You see guilt, but the dog doesn't necessarily feel it, a new study shows.

By setting up conditions where the owner was misinformed as to whether his or her dog had really committed an offense, researcher Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College in New York uncovered the origins of dogs' allegedly downcast mugs.

Horowitz was able to show that the human tendency to attribute a guilty look to a dog was not due to whether the dog was indeed guilty. Instead, people see guilt in a dog's body language when they believe the dog has done something it shouldn't have, even if the dog is in fact completely innocent of any offense.

During the videotaped study, owners were asked to leave the room after ordering their dogs not to eat a tasty treat. While the owner was away, Horowitz gave some of the dogs this forbidden treat before asking the owners back into the room. In some trials, the owners were told that their dog had eaten the forbidden treat; in others, they were told their dog had behaved properly and left the treat alone. What the owners were told, however, often did not correlate with reality.

Whether the dogs' demeanor included elements of the "guilty look" had little to do with whether the dogs had actually eaten the forbidden treat or not.

Dogs looked most "guilty" if they were admonished by their owners for eating the treat. In fact, dogs that had been obedient and had not eaten the treat, but were scolded by their (misinformed) owners, looked more "guilty" than those that had, in fact, eaten the treat.

Thus the dog's guilty look is a response to the owner's behavior, and not necessarily indicative of any appreciation of its own misdeeds.

The study involved 14 dogs and their 14 owners. The six male dogs and eight 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.

This study sheds new light on anthropomorphism — the natural human tendency to interpret animal behavior in human terms, Horowitz said. Anthropomorphism involves comparing animal behavior to human behavior, and if there is some superficial similarity, then the animal behavior will be interpreted in the same terms as superficially similar human actions. This can include the attribution of higher-order emotions, such as guilt or remorse, to the animal.

The results are detailed in a special issue (July) of the journal Behavioural Processes.

The editor of the issue, psychologist Clive D.L. Wynne of the University of Florida, called Horowitz's study "a remarkably powerful demonstration of the need for careful experimental designs if we are to understand the human-dog relationship and not just reify our natural prejudices about animal behavior."

Dogs are the oldest domesticated species and have a uniquely intimate role in the lives of millions of people, Wynne said. Recent research on dogs has indicated more human-like forms of reasoning about what people know than has been demonstrated even in chimpanzees, he said.