We’ve all seen it…you come home to find the contents of the kitchen garbage can all over the floor, or the stuffing ripped out of a sofa cushion. You ask your dog what happened and he responds with that “guilty look” dogs are famous for. Do dogs really feel guilty when they do something wrong, or are we just reading too much into their facial expressions? The answer is actually somewhere in between.
In a study published in Canine Behavior and Cognition researchers conducted experiments that prove it’s us humans who trigger that characteristic guilty look in our dogs by scolding them, regardless of whether they actually did something wrong or not.
Researchers had owners tell their dogs not to eat a treat, and then leave the study room. Some of the dogs got a treat anyway, and some didn’t. The owners were told either the truth about whether their dog ate the treat, or a lie.
The dogs who most strongly exhibited the guilty look were scolded by their owners, whether or not they ate the treat. Even obedient dogs looked guilty if they got reprimanded. Dogs who didn’t get scolded didn’t look particularly guilty at all…even those who actually got away with eating a treat.
What’s the conclusion? Your dog is most likely to give you a sad look when you scold him, it doesn’t matter if he did anything wrong or not. The idea that your dog looks “guilty” is called anthropomorphism--the human tendency to interpret animal behavior in human terms. Chances are, your dog’s just bummed about getting a scolding from his best friend.
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