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One study’s verdict: Dogs found not guilty

beagle_pupIt’s being reported that researchers at a New York college say dogs don’t feel guilt — that the “guilty look” on a dog’s face is all in the imagination of the human owner.

After tricking owners into thinking innocent pets had misbehaved, researchers found that owners claimed to see a guilty look on the face of dogs that did nothing wrong, proving owners were projecting human values onto their pets, the study says.

The study, led by Alexandra Horowitz, assistant professor at Barnard College in New York, looked at how dog owners interpreted their pets’ expressions when they believed that the dog had stolen and eaten a forbidden treat. In a series of tests, owners were sometimes given accurate and sometimes false information about whether their dog had stolen the treat.

Researchers found that pet owners’ belief that they could read their dogs’ “body language” was often entirely unfounded, according to a BBC report.

Far more likely, it seems to me, the dogs were correctly reading their human’s body language.

Maybe dogs don’t feel guilt, but I think they feel something pretty close to it, perhaps better described as “uh-oh, I think I’m going to get in trouble.” The look we often interpret as guilt — which is really a human creation (thank you, organized religion) — is more likely a look coming from having been admonished, or anticipating admonishment. I think dogs know when they’ve done something wrong, and that they can likely remember getting in trouble for it in the past. That, coupled with a vibe from an angry or disappointed owner, is likely what leads to the look in question.

Put more simply, dogs, like humans, come closer to feeling guilt once they get caught.

In the study, if an owner thought the dog had misbehaved and then told the dog off, some dogs showed an “admonished” look, which humans then misunderstood as an admission of guilt. Researchers concluded that any such “guilty look” is a response to human behavior and has no relation with the dog’s actions or sense of having broken any rules.

The study is included in a special issue of the journal Behavioural Processes, called “Canine Behaviour and Cognition.”


Comment from Anne’n’Spencer
Time June 12, 2009 at 11:48 am

I dunno. I’m in the minority, since I think dog feelings and human feelings are quite different. But I could come up with two scenarios. Let’s say you’re returning home. You turn the key in the lock, open the front door, and step inside:

1) Dog comes running to greet you. Head is up, ears are forward, tail is up and wagging. He greets you eagerly, kissing your hand or begging for a scratch or doing whatever it is he does that lets you know he’s glad to see you. Chances are the house is pretty much as you left it.
2) Dog comes only when you call, and then he comes verrrrry sloooowly. Ears are down, tail is between legs, posture is slouched. He seems pitifully grateful for any crumb of attention you may throw his way. Odds are you will find a violated wastebasket, chewed slipper, destroyed knitting, or pee puddle.

Assuming it’s the same dog, and assuming he’s well treated and happily adjusted otherwise, Scenario 2 looks a lot like guilt to me. If it’s not guilt, it’s probably well-founded concern about your disapproval.