Guilty, Guilty, Guil -- Oops, Not Guilty

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
October 13, 2011

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First, watch this priceless "guilty dog" video.

[Insert interval of helpless laughter.]

Now watch it again, and this time keep a close eye on how Tank the Bull Mastiff changes his body language as his guardian speaks to him. I think he looked a little subdued even to begin with, probably because of that garbage-can-lid neck gear ... but still, this video is a perfect example of how easy it is to make our dogs appear "guilty." The man in this video is super, super mild -- even humorous -- in the way he reprimands Tank, but it's enough to produce that look.

People who study dog cognition and behavior are just about 100 percent sure that dogs don't connect their humans' reprimands with their own behavior unless the reprimand is instantaneous. (And even then, dogs sometimes get the wrong idea. The classic example is the puppy scolded for a housetraining mistake. His guardian thinks she's scolding him for peeing in the house. He thinks she's scolding him for peeing. Oops, way to teach the puppy not to pee in front of you but go behind the sofa instead.)

Anyway, Tank here has a clue that his person's Not Pleased About Something, and maybe he has a clue that Something has to do with his person being present at the same time that there's garbage on the floor, but there's a snowball's chance that he's thinking anything like "Oh, I really shouldn't have dumped out the garbage." And as for feeling guilty -- we can't prove for sure that he doesn't, but probably not.

The dog researcher Alexandra Horowitz did an experiment about dogs' guilty looks a couple of years ago.


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