We love trying to guess how our dogs think and feel. With their expressive faces and expansive body language, dogs manage to communicate a wide range of emotions to their humans. However, we don’t always interpret them correctly. One of the most common examples of this is guilt.
What’s That Guilty Look For?
You’ve probably come across your dog after he’s done something naughty, like peeing in the house or shredding your favorite pair of socks. His body language seems to radiate guilt. However, veterinary experts generally agree that this is a classic case of anthropomorphism (the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to an animal).
A 2009 study examined “guilty” canine expressions. Researchers observed misbehaving dogs and their owners under several sets of circumstances and discovered that dogs tended to display “guilty” behavior more frequently when their owners scolded them than when the owners remained neutral.
Guilt or Fear?
When we say a dog looks guilty, we usually mean he displays some or all of the following behaviors or signs:
- Tucked tail
- Visible whites of the eyes
- Cowering posture
- Flattened ears
These are all expressions of fear and stress in dogs. While these behaviors could also conceivably communicate a feeling like guilt, it does pose a dilemma for researchers.
Guilt is a complex concept. It requires an understanding of cause and effect in relation to time, which is difficult to prove. Dogs don’t talk about how they feel using words, so we don’t know what they think about while they wait for us to come home and discover a chewed table leg.
We do know dogs experience fear and stress, because these biological responses can be measured. This makes it far more likely that your dog’s “guilty” behavior is an attempt to appease you, rather than guilt over his actions.
Dogs Know When You’re Upset With Them
Dogs might not know when they’ve done something naughty, but they certainly know when you are upset with them. Your dog picks up on your body language the moment you walk in the door. Scolding, pointing, or focusing your full attention on your canine companion in a stressful manner communicates your displeasure. Your dog responds with an appeasing behavior, like cowering, as a way of asking for forgiveness.
Poking fun at a “guilty” dog in an amusing photo is one thing, but misunderstanding guilt can lead to problems. Experts agree that practices like rubbing your dog’s nose in pee during house-training don’t work and can actually backfire. Punishing a dog after the fact is ineffective and can unnecessarily stress him out. Instead, figure out how to prevent situations that lead to naughty behavior in the first place.