What does your dogs 'guilty' look really mean?
Owners often say their dogs 'look guilty' when they are confronted after having done something inappropriate, such as have an accident in the house, chewing the sofa or stealing a shoe. Owners describe seeing their dogs doing the following things which look like 'guilt':
- bowing their head
- not giving full eye contact
- slinking away
- ears flattened
- licking their lips
We've all seen that doe-eyed look and thought, yep - they know what they've done! These are actually appeasement signals and gestures as well as signs of stress. They're used by the dog to change behaviour in others in that specific moment so they can avoid punishment or harm. Dogs have learnt to do this as they have evolved to help them live more harmoniously with humans.
Guilt is a feeling of worry or unhappiness that you think you have or have done something wrong. This can be a feeling of shame or regret as a result of your conduct. To feel like this requires self-awareness and the ability to reflect on what we've done. It is not believed that dogs are completely aware of how their behaviour affects others as this requires complex cognitive processes. Dogs may well have a simpler version of these skills as they can definitely learn consequences of behaviours.
A study by Horowitz* in 2009 trialed 14 domestic dogs and analysed their actions to see if they corresponded to that 'guilty' look. The trials varied the opportunity for dogs to disobey their owner's cue not to eat a tasty treat. The owner would then leave the room. Some dogs ate the treat, others left it and on other occasions the treat was removed to make it look like the dog had disobeyed their owner, even though they hadn't. The results revealed no difference in behaviours associated with the guilty look however, more of the 'guilty' behaviours were seen when an owner told their dog off. Therefore, the appeasement signs shown by the dogs who were scolded were only to avoid punishment when the owner indicated they were angry. Some of these dogs had no reason to feel guilty.
Dogs may not know when they've been naughty but they definitely know when you're upset with them which is why they show the appeasement and stress signals when being told off. Your dog picks up on your body language and tone of voice. By the time you tell them off for chewing the chair, they have stopped what they were doing and have no idea why you're acting like that towards them. They look 'guilty' to try to stop you acting in that way and to protect themselves.
What to do if you're dog has been naughty?
Here's a few things that you can do instead of telling your dog off:
- manage their environment so there's as little as possible for them to be naughty with - i.e. put slippers away!
- give them something of theirs to play with or chew so they have an outlet for this need
- make sure they're getting enough exercise to reduce unwanted behaviours
- teach them some new skills or tricks to wear their brain out so they feel able to rest
- ignore unwanted behaviours but make sure you reward all of those behaviours you like!