Think Your Dog Has A "Guilty" Look? Think Again

I get it. Like you, I have known (and loved) dogs who have massacred pillows, invaded cabinets and made abstract art with toilet paper. I've felt confusion, disbelief, maybe even anger. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I spy the culprit with a downtrodden face, tail thumping on the ground. He knows he's guilty.

The only problem is, it's not what it seems. We're duped. By ourselves.

Here's why: A dog owner often assumes that the dog, let's call him Moose, has misbehaved despite knowing the rules of the house. And Moose's post-screw up behavior, in which he "fesses up" with those big, sad eyes, only confirms that he knows he did something wrong.

We can all describe the infamous Guilty Look. When I asked owners to describe their dogs' guilty looks, their answers were similar: dogs look away and avert their gaze; some approach, low and slow; others freeze; others move away. Some roll onto their back and for many, the ears go back and the tail can't stop thumping. And if you look closely, many will lift a paw.

But a body of growing research suggest that when it comes to the infamous guilty look, we seem to be missing the mark. And sadly, your dog's "guilt" is likely obscuring the real reasons behind his "bad" behavior.

Let's first examine the evidence. According to owners, dogs crack under the pressure of being confronted. That certainly appears to be the story behind Denver, the queen of the YouTube Guilty Dogs (whose signature video has over 30 million views):

click to play video

In multi-dog households, owners often interrogate each dog until, as Denver the "guilty dog's" owner explains, "one of them cracks under pressure." In other instances, interrogation is futile because the dog is caught red-handed.

Barnard College Associate Professor (and author of "Inside of a Dog") Alexandra Horowitz, investigated the guilty look with the help of a clever experiment. Owners instructed their dog not to eat a treat, and then left the room. Dogs then either ate the treat or were prevented from doing so. When the owners returned, the researchers sometimes tricked them by telling them that the dog ate the treat when he had not.

The result? If owners scolded them, dogs looked guilty regardless of whether they ate the treat or not. The results were clear: the guilty look was not associated with what dogs did, but with what the owner did.

While it's tempting to think your dog acts like a human child would, dog behavior is better framed in an ethological context -- what it means for dogs in dog terms. In the mid-1900s, many ethologists investigated canine social behavior, particularly the "cohesive displays" -- often submissive behavior -- which are common in social animals (ourselves included) who benefit from keeping the group together. Some cohesive displays include rolling onto the back, raising a paw or looking away. Sound familiar? These displays not only overlap with our now-familiar owner descriptions of the guilty look, but also with behaviors associated with fear and stress.

One of the classically misunderstood "guilty" behaviors -- the "guilty grin," made famous by Denver (and Baileys and Buffy) -- actually describes what ethologists call a submissive grin. As the ASCPA behavior team explains, submissive grins are "almost always accompanied by an overall submissive body posture, such as a lowered head, yelping or whining, and squinty eyes." Instead of indicating admission of "guilt," these "appeasement" displays come out during stress or fear-inducing interactions. Dogs see you are upset and are trying to appease you.

"Fine," I often hear next at dinner parties. "Then why is my dog already hiding under the bed when I come home and before I see that the bathroom is destroyed?" Others say they can tell the dog did something wrong just because the dog's greeting was "off." Or, as Dr. Patricia McConnell, PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist says, "People think their dog ‘knows' she shouldn't potty in the house because she greets them at the door looking ‘guilty,' with her head and tail down, her eyes all squinty and submissive."

If you see this in your dog, I hear you. It's very possible your dog's behavior looks suspicious, and that it means something. But it probably doesn't mean what you think it does. In 1977, Peter Vollmer, a veterinarian in Wisconsin, had a client who complained that his dog, Nicki, shredded paper in his absence. To investigate, Vollmer recommended that next time, the owner shred the paper himself before leaving the house. When the owner returned, the dog looked "guilty" even though she did nothing wrong.

Why did Nicki look guilty if she hadn't shredded the paper? "Evidence + Owner = Trouble" summarizes Frans de Waal, in the acclaimed book "Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals." Meaning, dogs are responding to those things in the environment or situations which they have previously been scolded. They're fearful or upset, and our concept of guilt is not part of the equation.

Submissive behavior has an additional component in the social world of dogs. Dogs offer submission actively, without prompting, and often to members of their group who are not acting in a specifically confrontational way. So your dog might look guilty before you find that half-eaten shoe because what she knows is that when you see things chewed up, you get unhappy.

Ultimately, this suggests that in multi-dog households, the dog looking exceedingly guilty didn't necessarily do the "bad behavior." That dog just might be a peacemaker. So think twice before assuming "guilty" Denver, with her tail thumps and guilty grin, is the culprit, as carefree Masey lies calmly nearby. For all we know, Masey might just be the cat-treat eating sociopath.

In any event, the behaviors underlying the guilty look don't reliably indicate disobedience. Along with members of the Family Dog Project, a preeminent research group in Budapest, I conducted a study to investigate the guilty look. In our experiment, owners enforced a social rule that food on a table was for humans and not dogs. Dogs were then left alone with the food. Some dogs scarfed it down, others didn't.

When the owners returned to the room, we observed how dogs greeted them, noting any "guilty" looking behaviors. We found no difference in the greetings between dogs that ate the food and dogs that did not. Nor were owners able to tell whether their dogs had eaten the food in their absence. The takeaway message is that dogs display the "guilty look" to owners for tons of different reasons, and its presentation does not signify knowledge of a misdeed.

None of this is meant to suggest that dogs do or don't feel guilt. Studies to date haven't investigated this question. Instead, what we can say is that our inferences about guilt based on behavior are unsubstantiated.

And misattributing guilt to dogs could be damaging. Wrongly saying Moose's "feeling guilty" could obscure a deeper truth: Moose doesn't understand the rules you think you've put in place -- and by incorrectly believing you have a bad dog that's willfully disobedient, you're not doing your relationship, or shoe collection, any favors. While domestication primes dogs for living with us, along with it doesn't (unfortunately) come some genetic moral code that eating new shoes is wrong but that other good smelling thing you brought home -- a dog toy -- can be torn to pieces.

Another problem with attributing guilt is that it obscures real issues behind "bad" dog behavior. Why did your dog tear up all the toilet paper rolls? Why is that pillow now exposing its 700+ pieces of fluff? When you get angry or forgive your "guilty" dog for demolishing your house, you ignore deeper concerns that, if addressed, could reduce or eliminate those behavior problems. Was the dog bored? Scared? Anxious? Did something change in your routine that confused them? Sadly, scolding dogs after the fact most often doesn't decrease future detrimental behavior. If anything, the "guilty look" could just become more exaggerated over time as your confused companion develops an anxious cycle of destruction and appeasement.

Maybe it is easier for people to see guilt than it is for them to come to grips with other motivators of behavior like boredom, fear, anxiety, or a dog who just doesn't get it. The story of the guilty look might be a more comfortable narrative to tell ourselves, but often, our narratives are myths. But that's a people issue. I study dogs.

Photo: Flickr/gb_packards