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April 3, 2013

Is The “Guilty Dog Look” Really An Admission Of Guilt?

From nutrition and exercise to grooming and training, I consider myself a pretty well educated pet parent.  However, when it comes to the “guilty dog look” I don’t know where I stand.  My gut (and millions of youtube videos) tells me that dogs can feel guilt, but I have

From nutrition and exercise to grooming and training, I consider myself a pretty well educated pet parent.  However, when it comes to the “guilty dog look” I don’t know where I stand.  My gut (and millions of youtube videos) tells me that dogs can feel guilt, but I have heard many second-hand comments that say we are incorrectly personifying dogs when we say they act “guilty.” To develop my understanding of the “guilty dog look” I decided to check out what some prominent researchers and behaviorists have to say on the subject.

Rhodesian Ridgeback

Eko has a well-practiced “guilty” look.  Head down, eyes averted, slouched posture and a nervous tail wag

My research first led me to a 2009 Horrowitz Lab (the same lab Eko and I helped with our playtime) study which emphatically stated that dogs do not feel guilt.  In this study, owners were often purposely misinformed that their dog had stolen a treat.  Despite the dogs’ innocence, they looked “guilty” when scolded by their owners, leading the lab to conclude that the “guilty” look is a submissive reaction, not an innate feeling in dogs.

The Horrowitz Lab findings did not sit right with me for a number of reasons.  First off, my girlfriend scolds me all the time.  Most of the time it’s well deserved, but on those rare occasions when it’s not I still instinctively act guilty despite no wrong-doing on my part.  Maybe dogs, like me, assume guilt until proven innocent?

Rhodesian Ridgeback, adventure

No assumptions needed. The defendant plead guilty

The Horrowitz Lab study also did not account for an experience which I, and many others, have had.  When Eko is home alone he will always greet me at the door – unless he has misbehaved.  Before he even sees me he knows he is in trouble!  Thankfully I wasn’t the only one with these concerns, and in 2012 another group of researchers studied the “guilty dog look” in more depth.

This more recent study agreed that innocent dogs will act guilty when scolded – again, a response I would expect and can totally empathize with.  What I found interesting was the fact that the dogs who actually were guilty of stealing the treat acted “guilty” for an extended period of time, whereas the innocent dogs did not.

Rhodesian Ridgeback, dog blog

Eko’s extended “guilty” behavior is frequently one of his mopey “please forgive me!” faces

The second study was by no means conclusive, but I do think it made the important distinction that the “guilty dog look” is not a simple open and shut case.  The evidence may be mixed, but if I was a juror I would go with my gut on this one and say that dogs can feel guilty.  I’m sure it’s not the exact same emotion people have, but it’s close enough for Eko to feel bad for eating my favorite pair of sandals when he knows he shouldn’t!

What do you guys think about the “guilty dog look?”

Comments for Is The “Guilty Dog Look” Really An Admission Of Guilt?

  1. catchatcaren says:

    I think Dakota DEFINITELY looks guilty when he needs to!

  2. Victoria says:

    my dogs have the guilty look down pat too – its equal parts “yeah i did something i am not supposed to” and “aren’t i just so cute you can’t be mad” – and you know it works on me

  3. Mustang.Koji says:

    Guilty until proven innocent! Lol

  4. Of our three, only two have “guilty looks” – the third doesn’t because he never thinks he’s done anything wrong, even when you catch him in the act of misbehaving! You could stand there wagging your finger at him, and tell him he’s a bad dog till the cows come home and it’d have absolutely no effect! 😆 This is when he pulls what we call his infuriating “smug look” and we give up.

  5. Mona Sigal says:

    Will, thanks for the blog and the delightful pics of Eko, I am so glad I found this blog.
    I have been a cat mom for 30 years, but am a brand new dog mommy since last August.
    Solomon is almost 10 months and 82 lb, and there canne ABSOLUTELY no doubt about the existence of the guilty, I-know-I -am-not-supposed-to-do-that. Cats have it too, but nothing like the guilty dog face; dogs have more facial muscles to express themstlves with.
    While the facial expression as a reaction to scolding may look te same, dogs express the Guilty face before being scolded when they know they did s.th. they were not supposed to do. And the fascinating thing is, that they have to learn it first! As a puppy he simply had no idea what was allowable vs. verboten so I didn’t see te guilty expression until he was several months old!
    Thanks for te research!

  6. emma says:

    We know guilt for sure. I ignore mom if I did something wrong and my sister hides so she doesn’t get blamed…we know definitely!

  7. We’d like to think you are right but are coming round to thinking that the extended guilt phase is one of frustration that the cunning plan and execution didn’t quite cut the mustard. Back to the drawing board!

  8. kdkh says:

    I’m not so sure they feel guilt, but they absolutely know when they’ve done something they shouldn’t have — and that we aren’t going to like it.

  9. Sandlady says:

    My guy absolutely exhibits guilt, but not sure he feels it. It I am walking around the property with him and get anywhere close to a hole he has dug, even before I see it, I know I will find it since he has already put his head and tail down, and is trying to discretely leave the scene of the crime.

  10. taylorjen says:

    I beg to differ with those who say dogs do not feel guilt. Taylor puts her head down between her paws and acts like she is sick when she has chewed something or been up to some mischief. I even get some kisses if it is a BIG faux pas! I assume the smooches are “Im sorry.” Or perhaps she is a good con artist?? As Dr. Jane Goodall says-humans are not the only sentient creatures on this planet with feelings and emotions! She also says she learned so much about animal behavior from her childhood companion, dog- Rusty. 🙂

  11. Great post! I agree with you, I think they show guilt maybe not like we do but definitely have those guilty looks. Riva is the one of my pack that shows guilt and it is usually when she has taken a bite out of something on the counter 😉

  12. Nightshade says:

    Great post and definately agree with you! Killian absolutely knows when he has to pull his guilty face and he knows very well that it works every time to stop me from being mad at him. 🙂
    I do think that the concept of feeling guilty is something that exists among dogs, though, like many other emotions, they probably define it somewhat differently than we humans do. We can’t project our own feelings and way of thinking on them, but saying that they cannot feel guilty doesn’t seem right to me. Besides, it has been scientifically proven that dogs actually do have emotions and since feeling guilty can be considered to be an emotion, I’m pretty sure it also exists among dogs! 🙂

  13. Boomdeeadda says:

    Oh boy, you’re too cute to scold Eko x

    We could always tell when but was guilty, no doubt about it. He’d almost tippy toe to the door and wanted out and he’d barely look at you. I could never be the scolder, Jim had to do it. He was just too cute.

  14. Shary Hover says:

    Lola shows lots of emotions, especially joy, but I’ve never seen her act like she feels guilty or sorry for something she’s done. Aren’t those shrubs in the garden hers to chew on? And isn’t it helpful of her to dig extra holes for me? And surely that chicken on the counter was for her.

    I know this makes it sound like she runs the house, but really, she hardly ever misbehaves! When I catch her at something, I scold her, she stops what she’s doing, and moves on to the next approved activity.

  15. I think that’s the “bane” of our breed. We always look guilty :o)

  16. Delft says:

    Dogs know they’ve done something you don’t like, but that’s not the same as feeling guilty which presupposes a moral sense, a concept of right and wrong.

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