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The Guilty Dog Look Is Not A Myth - The Science Behind It

Did he do it?

The Guilty Border Collie
Does this dog look guilty to you?

Is it a mistake to confer human emotions and motives on our dogs? Are dogs really more human than some of us are prepared to believe? 
Recently, dogs have become the new darlings of cognitive science, and research exploring the range of canine emotions and cognitive abilities is mounting at an exponential rate.
Among the many human characteristics attributed to dogs is the concept of guilt. It’s not unusual for a dog owner to state, “I knew he had done something; he had that ‘guilty look.’” We all know that doleful, guilty dog expression, but does it really demonstrate that dogs feel shame? If not, what’s behind it? Researchers at University Barnard College in New York set out to answer a few of these questions.

The Guilty Dog Experiement

In a study by Alexandra Horowitz, Assistant Professor from Barnard College, dogs were placed in a controlled environment where they and their owners were setup to make guilty dogs appear innocent and vice versa. Dogs were ordered by their owners to leave a tasty treat alone, then the owner left the room.
After the owners left the room some dogs were offered the forbidden treat by the researchers, which they ate, while others obediently awaited their master’s return. What the researchers told the owners about their pet’s behavior often did not correlate with the events that had transpired in their absence.
Owners who were told truthfully that their dog had disobeyed them by eating the treat, and who then scolded their dogs, received a guilty look from the dog. However, when researchers falsely stated that the dog had eaten the treat in their owner’s absence, the innocent dogs that were scolded for eating a treat they had not consumed, demonstrated the guiltiest look of all dogs in the experiment.
This suggests that the guilty look stems from a reaction to the scolding, and not to the dog’s true guilt or innocence. However, further research indicates there may be more to the guilty look that what we gather from this experiment at first blush. 
So what are the dogs really responding to; what do dogs think and feel with regard to their human caregivers?

The Dog Genius

According to Brian Hare co author of The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter Than You Think, “The genius of dogs is that they use probably the most powerful tool on Earth to solve problems—humans. At one point in wolf evolution, a group of wolves decided to take advantage of humans, and they have been really successful because of it.”

By hitching themselves to humans, dogs have become one of the most successful species on the planet. Dogs domesticated themselves in a process where the most tolerant, attentive and least aggressive dogs did best with their new companions. In an 18,000 year process, the brain and sensitivities of the dog have been refined to better coexist with man. It seems that dogs have developed many of the coping skills that we observe in young human children.

Our Canine "Kids"
guilty bassett hound
The Bassett Hound always wears
 a bit of a remorseful expression.

Many dog owners refer to their dogs as their “canine kids.” But are adult dogs really like human kids? Researchers Lisa Horn, Ludwig Huber, Friederike Range at The Clever Dog Lab sought to determine if dogs, like human children, display a “secure base effect.” Essentially the secure base effect in young children refers to an attachment bond where the child refers back to the caregiver for reassurance while exploring the world. The presence of the caregiver provides a sense of security, the secure base.
In human tests, children perform better on cognitive tests when their caregiver is present in the testing environment. The researchers for this canine experiment set up four conditions using a problem solving dog toy that dispenses treats as the model for the cognitive test. Dogs were left with the toy in one of four scenarios: alone without a human presence, with a stranger, and with their owner actively encouraging the dog to interact with the toy and finally, with their owner in an inattentive state.
Dogs left alone with the toy had minimal interaction with it. Dogs left with strangers interacted slightly more with the toy. And those with their owners present interacted statistically significantly more with the toy whether the owner was attentive to the game or not. This demonstrates a remarkable secure base effect with their caregiver; one that adult dogs retain throughout their lives, yet one which normal human children eventually out grow.
It appears that this parent/child bonding is mutual. Ocytocin is a neurotransmitter that is essential in the bonding process across all mammalian species. It is essential for the development of the parent/child bond as well as paring bond in mating processes.
In an experiment, pet owners were asked to complete a questionnaire that described the bond they felt with their dog. Afterwards they were asked to give a urine sample, and then to play with their dog for 30 minutes. Following their play session, they again provided a urine sample. The analysis of the before and after samples showed that those with strong bonds to their pets also had increased levels of oxytocin in their urine samples following the play session with their dog. The increased levels of ocytocin correlated with their level of attachment they reported experiencing with their pet. It appears we are biologically bonded with our dogs.
Working agility at a distance based on handler' body language.
Working agility at a distance based on handler' body language.
Source: By Ron Armstrong from Helena, MT, USA (HMKC Spring 2007 Agility Trial) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativeco

Dogs Are More Like Us Than Other Primates Are

Research over the last 10 years is turning up some surprising facts about dogs. Their ability to follow a gesture or a human gaze is unparalleled among other species, including the chimpanzee. If we fix our attention on an object, by pointing or looking at it, the dog will also fix his attention the object. If I point at an object, a cat or primate will look at my finger, however the dog will often follow the gesture to the object I am pointing at.
This unique ability to understand visual and auditory commands and correlate them to our desired actions allows dogs to herd stock, retrieve and run agility courses with split second responses to our commands or, in some instances, simply to our field of focus. Top agility handlers guide their dogs across the course by aiming their body at the next obstacle. Handler error occurs when the handler accidentally pulls the dog off course by aiming his body at the wrong obstacle.
Dogs are also the only species that has demonstrated the ability to learn words on the same level as two year old human children; with the average dog being able to learn between 150-250 words.
Even more remarkable, dogs use an inferential strategy that employs the principle of exclusion. Dogs taught words for specific objects can infer, by excluding the known sound/object associations, that a new sound belongs to a new object that has been added to the mix of objects to be retrieved. Only human children have demonstrated this ability so far.
And beyond that, two border collies have demonstrated the capacity for iconicity. These dogs can be shown a two dimensional representation of an object, and then retrieve that object based on the symbol or icon represented in the image.
Is this puppy laughing?
Is this puppy laughing?
Source: By Naomi Ibuki 

Do Dogs Have Human Feelings?

Laughter: We know dogs can bark for joy, but can they laugh too? Researcher Patricia Simonet from Sierra Nevada College and her team discovered that “certain breathy, excited exhalations” could be the canine version of laughter. Her team recorded the sounds made by dogs at play at a local park. They discovered a unique exhalation that was different from normal panting. When the team played these sound recordings for other dogs, they began to play too when the “laughing pant” was audible. Additionally, they found that playing recordings of the laughing pant helped to calm shelter dogs under stress.

Do Dogs Grieve?

Researchers have found in multiple experiments, that dogs do experience grief when a member of the household passes away. Dogs experience lethargy, loss of appetite and sleep disturbances, just as people do, for the loss of human or pet family members. Typically these manifestations of grief will last 2 weeks, but may be extended as long as six months.

Canine Jealousy and Their Sense of Fair Play

Dogs taught to shake hands for intermittent rewards will stop shaking hands if they see that another dog is receiving rewards for every hand shake. This demonstrates a sense of fair play, as well as a sense of injustice. Dogs do become jealous and even resentful, when they feel another animal is being treated better than they are.
Dogs can empathize and feel jealousy.
Dogs can empathize and feel jealousy.

Can Dogs Experience Empathy?

Empathy, the ability to experience the thoughts and feelings of others has long been considered a unique trait among the higher level primates. Can dogs experience our emotions?
Yawning is not only contagious among humans, it is between humans and dogs too. A study by Teresa Romero and colleagues from the University of Tokyo found that dogs yawned when both strangers and their owners yawned. However, they responded with reciprocal yawns more frequently to their owner’s yawns than to those of strangers. The dogs also responded much less frequently to faked yawns.
Yawning is important as it demonstrates the capacity for empathy, and has been shown to correlate with the level of social attachment in several primate species. The fact that dogs differentiate between real and faked yawns and respond accordingly is intriguing. Dogs empathize with the genuine human act, and the faked one is largely ignored.

So, Do Dogs Feel Guilt?

Conventional wisdom says dogs cannot feel higher emotions such as shame or guilt. These guilty expressions are generally attributed to fear or confusion.
However in a survey, 74% of dog owners believed that their dogs experienced guilt when the knew they had transgressed. And 60% of these dog owners said that the guilty expression resulted in less scolding of the dog.
We know from the previous experiment that scolding elicits a guilty expression. Apparently, that guilty expression is useful to dogs to alleviate some of the scolding; it is an adaptive behavior. But do dogs act guilty when they know they have transgressed, yet their owner has not yet discovered the crime?
The full answer to that question has not been proven in an experiment, however one preliminary test shows that there is a guilt response in truly guilty dogs.
In an experiment led by Julie Hecht at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, researchers found again that all dogs act guilty when scolded for stealing forbidden food, regardless of their guilt or innocence. However, when owners left the room and then returned to greet their dogs a second time, only the dogs who were truly guilty of stealing a treat continued to act guilty on their owner's return. The innocent dogs had forgotten the scolding incident, and greeted their owners normally.
It stands to reason that animals so attuned to us, and with such an incredible capacity to learn and desire to please, would be able to anticipate our displeasure upon discovery of their crime. The Hecht Research Group is working on a new experiment to remove some of the confounding variables introduced in the lab setting. We expect that they will find further evidence that dogs do feel guilt, along with the many other human emotions they may experience.


Horowitz A (2009). Disambiguating the “guilty look”: salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour. Behavioural processes, 81 (3), 447-52 PMID: 19520245
Public Library of Science. "Dogs yawn more often in response to owners' yawns than strangers." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 August 2013. <>.
Citation: Horn L, Huber L, Range F (2013) The Importance of the Secure Base Effect for Domestic Dogs – Evidence from a Manipulative Problem-Solving Task. PLoS ONE 8(5): e65296. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065296
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

Truly Guilty Dogs and Their Crimes

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