Dog's Guilty Look Is An Owners Imagination

June 17, 2009

The "guilty look" on a dog's face does not have to do anything with an actual guilt, says a new York researcher, whose the expression on a dog's face in fact bears no relation to their own behavior, but rather to that of their owners.

Alexandra Horowitz, an assistant professor from Barnard College in New York, set out to determine why owners see guilt which the dog does not necessarily feel. The researcher was able to demonstrate that the human tendency to attribute a guilty look to their pet was not due to whether the dog was indeed guilty. Instead, individuals see the dog saying "sorry" in its own body language when they think that the dog has done something wrong, even if the dog is in reality completely innocent of any misconduct.

Horowitz conducted an experiment involving 14 dogs and their owners. The 6 male dogs and 8 female dogs included six mongrels and eight purebreds - a Brussel's griffon, 2 dachshunds, a Tibetan terrier, a cockapoo, a shi-tzu, a wheaten terrier and a Labrador retriever.

In a series of tests that have been videotaped, the lead investigator asked each owner to order the dog to stay away from a tasty treat after what the owners had to leave the room. When Horowitz was left alone with the dogs, she gave some of them the forbidden treat, and did not give it to the rest. When the owners came back to the room, some were told that their pets disobeyed and ate the forbidden treat, and others were told the opposite, that their dog had behaved in a proper way and did not touch the treat. The owners were told this regardless of what the dog had actually done.

The investigators found that whether the dogs' face expression included elements of the "guilty look" had to do very little with whether the dogs had actually eaten the food that was forbidden or had not. Dogs looked most "guilty" when their owners were reprimanding them for eating the treat. In reality, those dogs who had been obedient and had not touched the forbidden food, but were scolded by their owners (who were provided with wrong information), appeared to look more "guilty," compared to those that had, in fact, eaten the treat. Therefore, the investigators came to the conclusion that the the dog's guilty look is just the way they react to the owner's behavior, and do not necessarily indicate any appreciation of its own misbehavior.

Alexandra Horowitz, said: "Given that discovery of, say, a stolen roast or garbage on the floor is often followed instantly by cries of alarm and scolding, it is not surprising that, in retrospect, owners would conflate the sources of dogs' resulting guilty looks." She added that when owners simply raise their voice or change the intonation when calling their dog's name, it is often enough to cause pre-emptive submissive behavior.

This study comes right after a research by the experts at the University of Bristol, who also dispelled the myth that owners should seek to become "leaders of the pack" in order to keep their dogs properly behaved, with the animals demonstrating no signs of a pack mentality in domestic life.

The findings are published in the latest issue of the journal Behavioral Processes.

Tags: Pets

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