The not so guilty look

All dog owners can share that one moment, the time you walk through the door and your pooch has got hold of something he shouldn’t have. A good pair of shoes. Rolls of toilet paper. Or an unfortunate mistake.

As a result of this we have all seen the look that we took as ‘yes I’m guilty, but so sorry’. Head down, eyes up. Yeah you know it as well.

Well, after all this time, it turns out that we have been interpreting these signs all wrong. It is not a sign of guilt, or being sorry. According to Alexandra Horowitz, this is actually a sign of fear or being scared. It’s more of a reaction to your body language than them being guilty of their actions.

The theory by Horowitz states that it is very unlikely that dogs can actually show or more importantly understand the complex emotion of guilt. My interpretation of that would be that a dog does not necessarily understand the difference between what’s good and bad in our world. Their training by humans is based on reptition and reward. This is not incorporating emotions such as guilt.

They can show emotions such a happiness, because that is a natural instinct with all species, and not something they have to be trained.

You can find the Link to Alexandra Horowitz’s work here .

This has certainly changed how I react to the stuff Max does. I no longer punish him for things done retrospectively. He does not understand what I’m trying to ‘tell him off for’ nor does he understand that what he’s done is wrong. I maintain a calm posture and no anger/disappointment in my voice. He doesn’t need it and will only stress him out with no positive outcomes.

This doesn’t mean he never gets corrective training for things I do not want him to do. For example if I was to be in his presence when he went for a pee in the house, I would incorporate positive training to encourage him to go outside to conduct his business.

Positive training is the only way to get results.

It’s understandable though, and we have all misinterpreted this ‘guilty look’. We would have also continued to do so without Horowitz’s report. When you look at what has been said in the report it does strike a chord and make you think ‘now I get it’. 

The reason we misinterpret this as a guilty look is probably because we associate it to a human emotion and expression. The only way for us ‘normal’ unscientific dog owners to decipher what our dog is thinking is by having a reference point. The only thing we have to reference emotions with is ourselves. What we assume we’d look like if we was a guilty dog. A happy dog. A sad dog. It’s quite normal for us to get this wrong, because it’s not a simple thing to figure out.

What we do know from this though is that our dog is a lot more complex than we give them credit for. They can’t show guilt about what we consider negative actions, but I still believe that in a natural setting they would understand guilt in the presence of their mother, or hurting a sibling. 

It can be flipped on its head. Put yourself in your dogs shoes. You have what we consider a guilty look on your face. Do you think you would be able to decode that as guilt? Or just prick your ears up and turn your head to the side?

It has for one opened our eyes, and hopefully more people will be mindful of how their dog is actually reacting to a situation. Thus improving relationships and a happy balanced pooch.

Let us know your thoughts. Do you believe that dogs can show guilt?

Thank you for reading and bark on people.