After a long day of work, you arrive home to find the
living room in shambles, the stuffing removed from the couch cushions, and the
dog nowhere to be found. After carefully searching the house and inspecting the
damage, you find your dog hiding in a corner or under your bed, head down, blinking
and squinting, and tail wiggling feebly. Some dogs might even “smile” or bare
their teeth in what looks like a cheesy grin. All signs of what we perceive as
There is no shortage of guilty dog videos online. But why do dogs look guilty? Are they capable of feeling guilty? What else could make a dog behave that way, and what does it mean? Are dogs manipulating you to get out of punishment?
The Root of the Behavior
Dogs may indicate what looks like guilt in a number of
different ways. They may cower or roll over, avert their gaze, show their
teeth, blink rapidly or squint, lay their ears back, or look up at you with
head lowered. But all this doesn’t necessarily indicate guilt. Most likely,
your dog’s guilty behavior is only a response to your reaction.
Two studies, conducted by Alexandra Horowitz and Julie Hecht, found that dogs are more likely to appear guilty when confronted by their angry or upset owner, regardless of actual guilt or not. In Horowitz’s study, dogs were presented with treats and told not to eat them. The owners weren’t told the truth about whether or not their dog had eaten the treat. Dogs whose owners were told had misbehaved were more likely to display guilt, even those who had behaved properly. In Hecht’s study, dogs were left unsupervised with a table full of food that was off limits. Hecht observed how the dogs greeted their owners. There was no difference in greeting between the dogs who had eaten off the table and those who hadn’t.
As body language plays an important role in communication between owner and canine companion, dogs’ body language is the main way they respond to you. When their owners are tense or angry, they will offer appeasing behaviors to try to decrease the tension or anger, especially when they have learned a connection between a specific behavior and punishment. For example, your dog may know that if they have an accident on the carpet, they will be scolded. Dogs are more likely to offer these submissive or placating behaviors to defer punishment. This is why, if you have more than one dog, either or both may appear guilty, regardless of which dog did the bad behavior. Submissive dogs tend to offer the guilty actions more readily than dominant dogs, as the actions we perceive as guilty are actually just submission.
Encouraging the Behavior
Depending on your relationship with your dog and your
leniency, your dog’s guilt might be hilarious or infuriating. Just remember, a
dog who looks guilty isn’t necessarily responsible for any wrongdoing. Be sure
not to mistake a dog’s guilty face as reason to scold or punish. What humans perceive
as bad behaviors, like chewing up paper or ruining a toy, is just your dog’s
way of coping with boredom or anxiety. Don’t be quick to scold. Instead, try to
understand the root of the behavior by uncovering what made your dog do it in
the first place.
Humans tend to transpose complex emotions on our animals, which they’re not capable of understanding or feeling. For example, your dog might know that knocking the trash can over results in scolding, but they doesn’t understand why you don’t want trash all over the floor or them to eat it. To a dog, maybe they’re just bored, lonely, or hungry. They also won’t understand why you’re angry with them hours after the bad behavior. Your dog’s guilt might just be their way of trying to calm you down and avoid what they feel is anger without reason. The next time you suspect your dog of wrongdoing, ask yourself why they may have done it instead of punishing your dog unnecessarily. It may not be their fault at all, since a dog is unable to help themselves from feeling bored or anxious, just as human beings are.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Dogs are bound to do something wrong on occasion. But how you react to it, and learn from it, is as much your responsibility as it is your dog’s. Dogs can learn action and consequence, until they understand that peeing on the floor results in scolding, but that doesn’t make it their fault if they can’t hold it any longer. It becomes your fault for not crating your dog or taking them outside enough. Dogs have no way to verbalize their needs, so it’s your responsibility as owner and fur parent to anticipate their needs and accommodate them. Dogs get bored, scared, or nervous the same way that people do. Try to remember that the next time Fido cowers among a heap of unrolled toilet paper. And as always, praise and reward works better during training than punishment and aggression.
Dogs are without question intelligent and emotional. But they don’t logic things the way that people do. And as responsible pet owners, we shouldn’t expect our dogs to act the way that people do. All we can do is teach them what good behavior is expected, and be lenient when they make a mistake. No one is perfect, and all dogs want is to be loved and cared for.