Guilty as Charged?

I walked out of my office this morning to find Sierra lying on the foyer carpet. But when she saw me, she sat up and gave her version of the “guilty look;” ears pinned back, eyes squinting, corners of the mouth slightly retracted. She was cringing and looking at me as though I was about to hit her. Since I’d never raised a hand to her unless it was to pat her head or rub her tummy, I wondered what was wrong. Had something scared her? Was she unwell? Was there a poltergeist hanging over my shoulder? Then I thought, Hmm, she must have done something. I walked to the kitchen, peeked out the back door and, sure enough, there on the dog ramp lay the evidence: a tissue she’d stolen from the bedroom trash can. Clearly, the theft hadn’t occurred within the last few seconds, and maybe not even the last few minutes—and yet Sierra’s expression was clearly connected to the offensive behavior. Traditional literature suggests that a dog will only look “guilty” about something he did within seconds beforehand; I disagree.

In 2009, Alexandra Horowitz published a study aimed at determining whether a dog’s “guilty look” was associated with something the dog had actually done, or if it might instead be a result of the owner’s reaction. Trials went as follows: A treat was placed in a room, and the owner would tell the dog to “leave it.” The owner then left the room. While the owner was absent, Horowitz would give the dog some of the forbidden treat. In some trials, when the owners returned, they were told the dog had left the treat alone; in others, they were told the dog had eaten the treat. Here’s the tricky part: what the owners were told was sometimes untrue.

Horowitz found that the “guilty look” (which should really be termed the “I hope you’re not going to punish me” look) had little to do with whether the dog had actually eaten the treat or not. Predictably, dogs looked most guilty when owners admonished them. But interestingly, dogs who had not eaten the treat but were still scolded by their misinformed owners looked even more guilty than the dogs who had eaten it! I haven’t read Horowitz’s thoughts on why that might be, but I would imagine that a dog who hasn’t done anything wrong might be more surprised by an owner suddenly scolding him for no reason he could fathom, than a dog who’s actually committed a doggy misdemeanor.

Just as the truly guilty dogs in Horowitz’s study most likely associated the owner’s scolding with having eaten the treat, dogs associate events that happen within a short time frame. When a dog sits on cue we offer a treat immediately, rather than sauntering back into the room 10 minutes later with the reward. We advise owners who return home to find potty accidents not to punish their dogs, since the event probably happened much earlier and the dog won’t associate the punishment with the behavior. Now, I’m not suggesting we punish dogs after the fact; but I do believe that rather than feeling the complex emotion of guilt, there are dogs who are simply capable of putting two and two together.

Sierra’s brain is so finely wired that she could not only put two and two together, but finish by giving you the square root. During the early days with Bodhi, there were times when we’d come home to find Sierra looking guilty. I knew she wasn’t destructive—she’d never touched a thing, and we’d had her for a few months before we’d brought him home. But from time to time Bodhi would do something that ranked pretty high on the Doggy Destructo scale, and Sierra knew we would not be pleased. The time he ate the couch comes immediately to mind. I can imagine poor Sierra standing by helplessly as Bodhi tore into the cushions. As pieces of foam wafted through the air, I’m sure she was frantically, telepathically pleading with him to stop. And he kept right on going.

Even with all we know about dogs physiologically and behaviorally, there’s still so much we don’t fully understand about how they process thought, what they’re mentally capable of, and their complex emotional life. I don’t think it’s that unusual for a dog to show the “guilty look” long after the fact. But it is fascinating to me that one dog can look guilty over another’s actions. Although I’ve never seen a study on the subject, it would make for some very interesting research.







8 Responses to Guilty as Charged?

  1. My Sammy would be a perfect cast study. Just when I think he has done as much destruction as possible, he finds something new to destroy. I know he is smart – I see his eyes follow me, analyzing everything I do. And since I was told not to punish him after the fact, he believes his destruction is a good thing. I believe he will never come out of these habits and I will never have furniture downstairs again. Not to mention turning the refrigerator and boarding up the kitchen every day when I leave for work. I was told to crate him … haha – he’d have that apart in the matter of minutes, maybe hurt himself in the process!

    • Matthew says:

      Does he believe his destruction is a good thing or is it simply a way to relieve/cop with another issue?

      • I believe he has a food addiction – he has now learned to slightly open the locked sliding door and pull in garbage from the patio. Maybe a little separation anxiety. His step-sister Zoe, the Husky/Malamute, is dominant and I also think Sammy shows off for her. After 9 months (adoption from shelter), I am finally smacking with the fly-swatter, just what my mom did when I was little – I have no mental scars at all!!!

  2. vickiel0427 says:

    I have 2 Belgian Sheepdogs, the oldest, a 2.5-year-old male and a 8-month-old male puppy. Tango, the puppy, has taken it upon himself to “tattle” on Gromit, his older brother. Sometimes Gromit will grab a cover I’ve placed on a chair for the cats to lie on or a dishtowel from the kitchen. Tango immediately starts barking, letting me know that something is happening which isn’t supposed to. He’s done this several times. And, Tango’s bark has a different tone to it. So, while Tango isn’t “guilty”, he knows that Gromit is doing something wrong and lets me know. Very funny.

  3. Fallah says:

    My husband swears that Thor, our 16 month old German Shepherd, knows when he has done something wrong. I have countered with the current standard thinking but just this week I was starting to wonder if he’s right. He is very in tune with our emotional states (moreso than any dog I’ve had in the past). I think he can tell the difference between fake anger, frustration, and real anger. I’ve tried to falsely accuse him of wrongdoing (“Thor! What did you do?”) and he just looks confused. There have definitely been days when we arrived home and he started slinking away before we even noticed his transgression (usually paper or bit of flotsam ripped up).

  4. Matthew says:

    Personally, I am still not convinced our dogs believe or even feel guilt as we try and attribute it. To truly be express guilt, verse simply reacting to the signals given off the accuser, doesn’t one have to understand the ethical or moral or legal offence? And aren’t 99.9% of offense by dogs violations of human values, desires, ethics, morals and “laws” verse what is natural for a dog?

    It is my understanding that dogs do not see “property” the same way we do. This shoe is mine, even when I am not around. This paper is mine, even when I am not around. It is my understanding that in the world of dogs, if I leave my shoe unattended, then it’s up for grabs. If that is the case, and the dog destroys the shoe, then it’s not going to feel guilt for destroying your shoe, you gave it up in the dogs mind. It was free to be claimed by whomever and done with however the new “owner” wanted to.

    If that is the case, then how would the dogs response when you come home and see your shoe chewed up be anything but appeasement…”oh crap, the human is angry for some reason…” appease, appease, appease.

    I almost see it much like if we are visiting a foreign country and committed some transgression we don’t understand or would be not be an issue at home. We would express our apologies and appeasement, but would we feel guilty? Probably not, because the alleged “transgression” does not line up with our native values, ethics, morals, customs etc.

    But we might look “guilty” in trying to defuse, even if we don’t mean to or feel guilty.

    I could be way off. Just my thoughts to date.

  5. Michelle says:

    I will never forget something my old Labrador did years ago. There was a family emergency that kept us out late, and as a result the poor dog was left in the house for about 12 hours. When we home she seemed fine, but then about half an hour later I went into the living room and she began to cry, cower and even hide under a table. I immediately saw why…she had pooped in the corner. What amazed me about this was that first – we were far from angry with her, it was totally understandable, but we had to coax her out from under a table using cookies and kind words. Second, she was about 10 years old at that time and hadn’t had an accident since she was a young puppy, and even then they were rare (she was very clean from the start). And third, she didn’t react until we went into the room where the accident was, which I found interesting. To me it really did seem like pure shame or even embarrassment on her part. Or maybe it speaks volumes to what a dog remembers, as she was trained using punishment as a puppy (swatted on the nose by my mom with a newspaper for having an accident in the house).

  6. Guilt seems to be a very hard thing to measure in dogs. I swear that sometimes when I get home my dogs look guilty when they have done something that they shouldn’t have. But at the same time, one of my dogs gets a guilty look on his face whenever I pull out the cleaning spray that I used to use when I cleaned up his accidents as a puppy. So it is clear in those situations that he is anticipating getting in trouble just from seeing the spray, even though he hasn’t actually had an accident.

%d bloggers like this: