Dog 'Guilt' Probably Just Reaction to Owners' Cues, Study Finds

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 2, 2009

Many dog owners have had this experience: Arriving home, they discover their pooch looking sheepish, with its head down, ears pulled back, tail tucked between the legs, maybe slinking behind the sofa. Puzzled, they soon discover the reason: a favorite pair of shoes chewed to pieces, or perhaps the kitchen garbage can upended.

But is their canine companion really acting guilty? Or is this an example of people projecting a human emotion onto their four-legged friend?

A new study concludes that it is more likely the latter -- that the behavior people interpret as dog guilt really is more likely just a reaction to subtle cues from their owners.

"I'm not denying that people have had that experience -- I have had it myself," said Alexandra Horowitz, an assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College in New York who conducted the study published in the July issue of the journal Behavioural Processes. "But I don't think we can say it's because the dogs are showing guilt. I don't think it maps to some inner emotion in the way we think it does."

Horowitz conducted the research as part of a broader interest in understanding anthropomorphisms -- the tendency people have to ascribe human emotions to animals.

"One of the things that interests me is the disconnect between how scientists refer to the behavior of animals and how pet owners refer to the behavior of animals," Horowitz said. "Within science, anthropomorphisms are verboten. But they seem to be a prevalent method of talking about animals for non-scientists. Even scientists who will speak of the monkeys in their lab by number will go home and talk about their dog feeling spiteful, for example. I wanted to test some of these."

So Horowitz devised an experiment involving 14 owners and their dogs -- six males and eight females, including six mutts, a Brussels griffon, a Tibetan terrier, a cockapoo, a Shih Tzu, a wheaten terrier, two dachshunds and a Labrador retriever.

Horowitz asked each owner to show the dog a biscuit, instruct the dog not to eat it and then leave the room. While the owner was gone, she either allowed the dog to eat the treat or removed it. Then the owner returned and was told the dog had obeyed the command or had been disobedient and had eaten the biscuit. Owners scolded the disobedient dogs. But half the time the owners were told the truth about whether their dog had misbehaved while the other half were misled.

And here is the surprising thing: The dogs that had obeyed were just as likely as the ones that did not to exhibit one of nine behaviors associated with the "guilty look" -- dropping their head, pulling their ears back, avoiding eye contact, rolling over onto their side or back, dropping their tails, quickly wagging a lowered tail, licking their lips, offering a paw, or slinking away.

In fact, Horowitz found that the pooches were most likely to show such behaviors when their owner believed they had disobeyed and scolded them.

"The most guilty look was when the owner scolded an innocent dog," she said. "It was a bit surprising."

Horowitz concluded that such behavior is most likely the result of subtle cues that dogs picked up from their owners that make them anticipate punishment, rather than the dogs necessarily feeling guilty.

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