When your dog gives you “the look,” you shouldn’t jump to a flurry of assumptions

By Lisa Tudor, CPDT-KA

We’ve all seen it or experienced it: you notice a ripped couch cushion, chewed slipper, piddle spot on the rug, or missing steak. You let out a sigh and approach the suspect, your dog.

Her tail drops or stops wagging, the head starts to lower or turns away, and you announce to the room, “What did you do!”

It’s a story that I hear often as a trainer and behavior specialist working with families and their dogs. The owner arrives on the scene and he concludes, “She knows it was wrong, you could just tell.” I ask how, and he explains the dog looked guilty.

Appropriate Guilt
Guilt does serve a function in humans. According to PsychologyToday, “Appropriate guilt can function as social glue, spurring one to make reparations for wrongs.” Or as Merriam-Webster describes, “guilt is a bad feeling caused by knowing that you have done something wrong.” When my clients make their claims about guilt in their dog, it requires one to think the dog knowingly did harm to the owner or the owner’s possessions of value. To continue this line of thinking, the dog should feel worse for her choice, and the owner’s arrival makes them reflect on their actions and experience guilt. This guilty emotion presents itself in what the owner describes as “looked guilty.” By looking guilty the dog admits wrong-doing. However, this is a flurry of assumptions. According to the American Psychology Association, “basic emotions such as anger, surprise or fear tend to happen automatically, without much cognitive processing, the self-conscious emotions, including … guilt … are more complex. They require self-reflection and self-evaluation.” Can a dog self-evaluate? I’ll be the first to admit that I have held a Canine Meditation class, but I wasn’t asking the dog for mindfulness—I was calming the owners to a place where even dogs can benefit. It wasn’t because we believed dogs could sit still, breathe deeply, and self-reflect. I’ll explain it this way: in our class, the dog reacts to the owner’s sense of calm and behaves similarly.

There have been studies about the owner-described “guilty look,” and these studies generally do not support the dog owners’ conclusion that the misdeed makes a dog express guilt. A popular study from 2009 (Horowitz) concludes that a dog’s guilty look is actually a response to the owner’s cues (however slight). If we look back at our example of the missing steak, the owner is part of the scene, not just a casual observer. Simple owner-behaviors such as sighing or scolding, or even subtle behaviors, like an eye glance from a stolen steak to the puppy culprit, can cause a response. A dog is almost always reading the body language of the people around him. The dog isn’t responding to his misdeed as much as he is reacting to the owner’s presence and the owner’s reaction to seeing the evidence.

Calming Signals
In another experiment Hecht et al. (2011) suggest that a dog’s guilty look may decrease the scolding response from a human. Meaning the lowered head or dropped tail that an owner observed when the steak went missing may actually reduce an owner’s adverse reaction. This could mean the dog’s behavior is not serving as an outlet for emotion, but as a function of calming down the owner. These “calming signals” (Rugaas, 2005) have been documented to have two purposes: to calm the recipient of the signal or to calm the signaler. This is an important distinction since the dog’s behavior has a simpler purpose and does not showcase a dog’s moral standard (if he has one).

The conclusion is looking guilty is a label. This labeling is for the owner to summarize a group of behaviors, not necessarily explain a dog’s state of mind in a moment in time.

Am I saying that a dog is completely unable to feel guilty?

In humans the prefrontal cortex has been shown to light up when we feel guilty. Dogs have this structure, although it’s only about 7% of the canine brain, while it’s about 30% in humans. From a scientific point of view, perhaps  evolutionary biologist, Marc Bekoff, PhD, says it best: “There have been no neuroimaging studies that focus on guilt. So, we really don’t know if dogs feel guilt.” And he is right. I don’t believe there is a study that has imaged a dog’s brain after we let him eat a steak without permission.

As for my behaviorist perspective and my experience working with family dogs over the past 10 years, I always like to remember there may be a simpler explanation for the missing steak than a complex cognition process.

Now, I know I will be flooded with emails or even videos showing dogs whose  owners swear up and down that their dog really, really knows they did something wrong. Please do! I would love to observe your dog’s actions, I just ask that you monitor your dog’s behavior before,
during, and after you find him chewing your shoes. Please send them to info@kissablecanine.com.

Lisa Tudor, CPDT-KA is Founder of KissAble Canine, LLC. Contact her through the website at www.kissablecanine.com, or call 703-574-3383.




NOVADog interviewed Alexandria resident Meghan Foy, winner of our Guilty Dog Contest, to learn about her (sometimes) troublesome pups.

NOVADOG MAGAZINE: Tell us a bit about your dogs.

MEGHAN FOY: We have two American Brittanys. Dublin is six, Britain is four. We adopted them both through the American Brittany Rescue.

ND: What’s the story behind your dogs’ “crime”?

MF: My fiancé has a bit of an unpredictable schedule, and our dogs like to express that they disapprove of his travel. … Typically, they target his pillow on the bed, or his shirt, or anything of his. (Oh yes, they know whose things are whose around the house!) One day I came home to find they had showed their anger by destroying their dog bed! Needless to say, they knew exactly what they had done. Britain shows much more guilt and remorse (like putting his paws over his face) than Dublin, who just stares blankly at the camera as if to tell us, “Yup, we did it, whatcha gonna do?” Sometimes they both give the tough stare like they’re saying, “And this is why Dad shouldn’t go away on work trips!”

ND: What good things do Britain and Dublin do?

MF: They love to play with the neighborhood kids. Both of them are really affectionate and quick to figure things out. Most of the time they’re great to hang out with … it’s just when Paul leaves on his trips and I’m at work during the day that they can get into mischief.

ND: Do you have a lot of experience with Brittanys?

MF: I actually run a meetup in Alexandria called “Brittanys of DC, VA, MD.” Also I volunteer with and foster the breed. American Brittany Rescue all the way!