You return home from work, open the door, and instead of the dog running to greet you with a wagging tail, they slink over. The dog's head is down, eyes averted, and tail firmly between the back legs. Something's wrong. Then it strikes you what it is. The dog looks guilty.
Striding inside, you brush past the dog and enter the living room. Just as you suspected! The dog has chewed another one of the couch cushions. "Bad dog!" you say, and send them to their basket. "If you know it's wrong, why do it?"
The dog looked guilty, so they evidently had an uneasy conscience. But if that's the case, why chew the cushion in the first place? Or are they not really sorry and just faking the guilty look?
Signs a Dog is Faking Guilt
Whether dogs understand the emotion 'guilt' or not is the topic of much debate. In fact, what is most likely is that dogs don't feel guilty as such, and the body language we interpret as guilt is actually anxiety on their part. In a way, you could say the dog is faking guilt because we read it as such, when their actual emotion is stress, fear, or anxiety.
The classic body language to be on the lookout for includes the dog not meeting your gaze (we find a person who doesn't look us in the eye shifty, which makes us jump to conclusions about the dog.) The dog may slightly turn their head away and regard you from the corner of their eye. They are likely to hold the head low to the ground, and when they move, they will slink along instead of walk or trot.
That classic barometer of a dog's mood, the tail, is held low, possibly right down between the back legs. And if it wags, it will be a slow, restrained wag, possibly just involving the tip.
In addition, if your dog is submissive, they are likely to roll over to display their belly or even urinate submissively, in what we may consider an act of repentance, but they are actually saying they are no threat to us.
History of Dogs Faking Guilt
For decades, if not centuries, our canine companions have been misunderstood. A classic example of this is the dominance theory, in which the hound by our hearth is secretly plotting to take over the world. In order to get the dog to behave and be obedient, it's therefore essential to assert yourself and be dominant so that the dog respects you.
This theory of how dogs behave has now been utterly discredited.
In a similar way, for decades, we have attributed the human emotion of guilt to dogs. This is because of the body language displayed, which we now appreciate is submissiveness rather than guilt.
What's also helped us reach this conclusion is that modern psychology and knowledge of dog behavior places a dog with a similar mental ability and range of emotions as a two to a three-year-old child. In fact, guilt is a relatively advanced emotion because it needs the subject to be aware of morality and have a sense of right and wrong. As any parent of a small child will be all too well aware, a toddler doesn't think this way and has to be guided and taught what actions are acceptable and what are not.
Similarly, a dog hasn't the emotional repetoire to feel guilty, and therefore has no way of knowing what the real emotion feels like in order to fake it. Instead, we assign guilt to a dog's submissive body language and by default accuse the innocent hound of faking guilt.
Science of Dogs Faking Guilt
Plenty of dog owners believe their dog feels guilt because of the body language their pet pal displays. However, what people are doing is misinterpreting what is actually submissive behavior. That contrite body language is actually a response to seeing someone in authority over them being angry or anticipating them being angry.
Indeed, animal behaviorists have studied canine reactions to assess if dogs do indeed feel guilt. In a group of dogs, whenever the owner became cross, it was always the most submissive amongst them that looked the most guilty...even if that dog was innocent of any crime.
A salient message indeed that if your dog looks guilty, they are actually anxious or fearful of you or your reaction.
Training a Dog to Fake Guilt
It is a sad fact that all too often we accidentally teach our dogs to fake guilt as a result of our actions. It's as well to realize how easily this is done so that if you are faced with a similar scenario, you can pause and rethink your reaction.
Let's say you return home to find your dog has pooped on the floor. They are house-trained and should know better than to soil indoors, so you tell the dog off. The dog looks suitably chastised and slinks away.
A few days later, the same thing happens again, only this time it's the dog's guilty look that alerts you to trouble. You stalk through the house and find the offending poop. The dog clearly understood they'd done wrong as they looked guilty when you came home. So why do they do it? Feeling frustrated by their disobedience, you chastise them soundly and send them to their bed.
What happened here is that on the first occasion, the dog didn't make the mental leap between your punishment and soiling indoors. Instead, from the dog's perspective, their owner came home and was angry for no understandable reason. Bear in mind that dog's don't do mental time travel, so the accidental poop is already forgotten about.
What now happens is the dog is anxious about the owner returning home, in case they react in the same irrational manner as previously. We misinterpret their submissive body language as guilt and believe the dog has a level of awareness of their actions which is not the case.
Instead of telling the dog off if they soil while you are out, you must just clear up the mess and make sure the dog has plenty of toilet breaks before you leave. Punishment after the event is pointless.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 05/08/2018, edited: 04/06/2020