It is common for a dog to lower his head, tuck his tail and sneak away if caught doing something his owner feels he shouldn’t. He may even do so if simply found at the scene of an earlier ‘crime’. People often read this a sign the dog feels guilty for what he has done. But guilt is a complex emotion. Do dogs feel it?
Guilt is usually felt by humans when they have knowingly done something they shouldn’t have. Psychologists suggest that human body language associated with guilt, such as turning the head away to avoid eye contact, is an attempt to seek forgiveness to prevent the breakdown of a relationship. If dogs also avoid eye contact when their owners find something they have done wrong are they also feeling guilty and trying to seek forgiveness?
The earliest widely recognised research into the subject was published by Vollmer in 1977. Owners were asked to shred some paper and then leave their dogs alone with it. On their return the dogs were reported to show ‘guilty’ behaviour. The fact the dog had not caused the damage and yet still showed this behaviour was interpreted as the dog trying to avoid being told off due to the presence of something associated with past punishments, rather than any sense they had done wrong.
A more recent study looked at how dogs reacted to their owner’s behaviour when the owner thought the dog had misbehaved. The dogs were trained to leave a treat on command and were then told to leave the treat whilst the owner left the room. The researcher stayed in the room and, once the owner had gone, either immediately removed the treat or encouraged the dog to eat it. When the owner then came back the researcher told some owners that their dog had eaten the treat and others they had not, regardless of what the dog had actually done. They then observed the dog’s behaviour towards the owner.
If dogs felt ‘guilt’ then only those dogs that had eaten the treat should have shown the head turning and cowering type behaviour. However, it was the dogs whose owners thought they had stolen the treat that did so, regardless of what the dog had actually done. In fact the dogs showing the strongest ‘guilty’ behaviour were those that had not stolen the treat but whose owners had been told they had. The researcher also checked to see how the dogs would behave if they actually did steal the treat. The owners commanded the dogs to leave the treat and then left the room as before, but this time the dog was left on its own until he or she cracked and stole the treat. When the owner then came back the dogs behaved in just the same way: those whose owners were told they had stolen the treat showed head turning and cowering and those whose owners had been told they didn’t steal the treat did not show this behaviour.
So what does this mean? We know that behaviours such as head turning and cowering are used by dogs to try and avoid disagreements (called appeasing), especially if they feel a person or another dog is being threatening. It therefore seems the dog’s ‘guilty’ look is in fact their attempt to appease their owner when they sense the owner is angry at them. They are not showing guilt as their behaviour is linked to the owner’s annoyance, not what they actually did. If the owner then punishes the dog he or she won’t understand why, which can lead to anxiety or defensive aggression and so make the problem behaviour worse. It is therefore far better to work out the reason why the dog did whatever it was we didn’t wan’t and change things so they don’t repeat it.