Does Your Dog Look Guilty?

So your dog acts guilty; does that mean he’s actually guilty? Or are you guilty of making him act guilty?

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
4-minute read
Episode #20

So, you come home after a long day at work to find your couch stuffing all over the floor, and ditto the kitchen garbage. “Rover!” you exclaim in dismay and anger. Sure enough, Rover slinks over to you, belly low, tail tucked, ears pinned back. Obviously, he knows he did wrong.

Or does he? This week’s topic is a nifty experiment and what it may teach us about doggy guilt.

Alexandra Horowitz, of the Barnard College psychology department, designed an experiment to test whether dogs act guilty because they’ve done something their owner disapproves of, or whether they’re responding to our voice and body language.

How the Experiment Worked

Owners first had to demonstrate that their dog would perform two behaviors: sit and stay for 10 seconds and-- when told not to eat a treat-- leave the treat alone for 10 seconds. Then, in the experiment, each owner asked his or her dog to sit and stay. They showed their dog a treat and told the dog to leave the treat alone. The owner then set the treat on the floor, in a spot where the dog could see it but not reach it. And then the owner left the room for 20 seconds (the experimenter stayed).

During that time, one of two things happened. The experimenter either picked up the treat and handed it to the dog -- who ate it; what a surprise! – or the experimenter took the treat away. Then the owner came back in and the experimenter told him whether his dog ate the treat. If the experimenter said that the dog ate the treat, the owner scolded the dog. If the experimenter said that the dog didn’t eat the treat, the owner just greeted the dog normally.

Now, here’s the punch line -- sometimes the experimenter lied. She told the owner that the dog had eaten the treat when, actually, the dog hadn’t eaten it. Or vice versa.

Scolding Made Dogs Act Guilty

The dogs offered significantly more “guilty” behaviors when they were scolded, regardless of whether they’d eaten the treat. And -- drumroll -- dogs who didn’t eat the treat showed as many guilty-looking behaviors as dogs who did eat it.In other words, how guilty the dogs acted had no connection with their actual “guilt.” In fact, the dogs who acted guiltiest of all were the “innocent” ones being scolded.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).