If you have had the opportunity to share your life with a dog, then you are probably familiar with ‘the guilty look’. Dog lovers will instantly recognize this classic expression as the one your pup adopts when you discover that he’s gotten into the trash, chewed up your good shoes, or dug a deep pit in your yard. But is he experiencing feelings of guilt behind those puppy dog eyes?
We certainly seem to think so. Seventy-four percent of dog lovers believe that their pups experience some form of guilt. But is it the same sort of guilt we feel, or is it a complex canine behavior that has been anthropomorphized, and is perhaps triggered by something else entirely?
This question is so hotly debated, canine behavior researchers decided to test the theory, and hopefully provide some answers. Consider two recent, credible studies that explored ‘the guilty look’.
In both, researchers ingeniously set up conditions to discover the origins of guilty behaviors in dogs. Based on their findings, they ascertained that the dog’s reaction is tied to the owner’s scolding, not the previous misdeed. This certainly seems to back up what many of us suspect, that humans have a natural tendency to want to interpret animal behavior in human terms.
There is plenty of evidence for what scientists refer to as primary emotions, such as happiness and fear, in non-human animals. Empirical evidence for secondary emotions like pride and jealousy, however, is extremely rare in animal cognition literature. The argument usually given for this lack of evidence is that such secondary emotions seem to require a higher level of cognitive sophistication, particularly when it comes to self-awareness or self-consciousness, that may not exist in non-human animals.
Put simply, guilt is complicated.
A group of canine cognition researchers from Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, published several studies in Applied Animal Behavior Science investigating ‘the guilty look’. In a 2009 study, pet parents reported that their dogs sometimes display guilty behavior when greeting owners. They claimed to be unaware of their dog doing anything bad, and asserted that it was the dog’s guilty behavior that told them about the dog’s infraction. However, researchers found there was no significant difference between obedient and disobedient dogs in their display of ‘guilty looks’ after having the opportunity to break a rule when the pet parents were absent.
But wait, say pet parents. ‘Guilty look’ behaviors are displayed even when dogs aren’t scolded. So, in a 2015 study these same behaviorists investigated whether the dogs' own actions or the evidence of a misdeed might serve as triggering cue for the guilty behavior. If the ‘guilty look’ was based on some sort of ‘guilt’ as often claimed by dog lovers, then the cue triggering this behavior would have to be linked to the dog’s own action, namely whether the dog has or has not done something “bad”. They tested this by manipulating whether or not dogs ate a ‘forbidden’ food item and whether or not the food was visible upon the return of pet parents. The findings indicate that the dogs did not show the ‘guilty look’ in the absence of scolding. So, at least in this study, the ‘guilty look’ was not influenced by the dog’s own bad behavior.
So, we have ample anecdotal evidence from pet parents, but little evidence from published studies to support this claim.
What do you think? Can dogs express the complicated emotion of guilt, or is it a series of subordinate behaviors that originate from the social cues given by their pet parents? Leave your comments in the section below!
Hecht, J., et al., Behavioral assessment and owner perceptions of behaviors associated with guilt in dogs. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. (2012), doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2012.02.015
Horowitz A (2009). Disambiguating the "guilty look": salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour. Behavioural processes, 81 (3), 447-52 PMID: 19520245
Ljerka Ostojić, Mladenka Tkalčić, Nicola S. Clayton Are owners' reports of their dogs’ ‘guilty look’ influenced by the dogs’ action and evidence of the misdeed? Behavioural Processess Volume 111, February 2015, Pages 97–100