Following on from our post, Bad Dog or Bad Training, we wanted to take a look at other human concepts that we ‘see’ in our dogs.

Many dog owners remain convinced that their dog has a ‘guilty look’ when they’ve done something wrong, for example, raiding the bin or destroying a cushion.

This is not the case. Dogs do not feel guilt.

What is guilt?

Let’s break down the human creation that is guilt.

To feel guilty a person has to;

  1. Have decided on action or inaction
  2. Have an understanding that the action, or inaction, was somehow wrong
  3. Have an understanding that the action, or inaction, caused harm or upset to someone
  4. Care about the above two understandings

Can a dog complete these steps?

When a dog destroys a cushion, they do it because they want to, so step one is complete – they have made that decision.

Does the dog understand it to be wrong? No. As we’ve already discussed in Bad Dog or Bad Training, dogs have no concept of right and wrong.

Step 3, do they understand that it has caused upset to you? No. And no to the power of infinity if you discover the act 5 hours later when you get in from work. They know that you are unhappy because you might be all shouty at them (which will do no good whatsoever).

Step 4 is irrelevant, as step 2 and 3 have not been completed.

Still not convinced? How about some science?

In a 2009 study, Alexandra Horowitz, Assistant Professor from Barnard College in New York, led a series of experiments with dogs and their owners.

Owners were asked to leave their dog in a room, with a treat, after instructing them not to eat it. While they were out of the room, Horowitz would remove the treat, sometimes giving to the dog to eat.When the owner came back in, she would tell some that the dog had eaten the food, and tell others that they’d left the treat alone.

Only owners who were told that the dog had eaten the treat saw ‘guilt’ in their dog’s faces. This was true for the dogs that had been given the food, and for those who hadn’t. Owners who had been told the dog had left the food saw no guilt in their faces, again with some dogs having eaten the treat, and some not.

So if it’s not guilt we see on our dogs’ faces, what is it?

So that ‘guilty’ look they give you is generally one of two things;

  • You are projecting onto them what you expect to see in the circumstance as you see it
  • Stress. A reaction of anticipation of fear, as they sense you’re about to have a shouty moment (as they have experienced this before and know the warning signs)

How guilty does your dog look? Not guilty at all. It’s all on you.

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