That Guilty Look

 “Calvin : There’s no problem so awful, that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.” 
― Bill Watterson, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes

guilty dog_dog shaming

 

Common Myth: When our pup puts on that doleful, guilty look, they must be guilty of something, right? He/she clearly feels bad for doing something wrong.

TRUTH: Your dog knows you are angry or upset and is using that particular body posture in their attempt of using dog language to get you to calm down and avoid any punishment from you.

 

The Science-Based Truth Behind That Guilty Expression:

Nearly 75 percent of dog guardians believe that their dogs experience guilt. Just watch Denver Dog, as he is presumed to feel very guilty in this video. It’s a natural tendency for us to interpret animal behavior in our human terms, but when we anthropomorphize (compare animal behavior to human behavior) we can overlook what is really happening.  Guilt is a human emotion.  Humans often project this guilt onto their animal companions.

Dog guardians observe particular behaviors: “avoiding eye contact, lying down and rolling to the side or onto the back, dropping the tail, wagging low and quickly, holding one’s ears down or head down, moving away from the owner, raising a paw and licking” – and owners believe these behaviors correspond with a dog’s feeling of guilty.  However, these are normal and very common dog behaviors that dogs display with each other, depending on the circumstances. These displays are called “appeasement behaviors” – behavior that inhibits or neutralizes aggression in a behavioral partner.

 

When a dog owner reprimands their dog, especially with loud, deep tones, the dog will attempt to calm the aggressive behavior of the owner (note: aggressive does not necessarily mean violent) with appeasement gestures: lowered head, ears, tail and body and squinty eyes. To the owner, this looks “guilty.”

In reality, the dog is only reacting to the behavior of the owner in the present moment and not associating the owner’s behavior with the actions of the dog that occurred hours before. The owner, however, is gratified by the dog’s appeasement gestures, taking it as evidence that the dog has learned he’s “bad.” ~ 4Paws University

 

dog guilt _dog shaming _Guilty dog
Denver the dog is displaying appeasement behaviors to his human. This does not equate to proof that Denver feels “guilty”.

“In wolves, guilt-related behaviors are believed to reinforce social bonds, as in primates, by reducing conflict and eliciting tolerance from other members of the social group. The same could be true of dogs, though their social groups would primarily include humans. Submission serves to keep a social group together, to foster group cohesion.”

 

The “guilty look” — head cowered, ears back, eyes droopy — is a reaction to the minor (or major) tantrum you are now having over the damage fido did hours earlier. They are not making the connection that you must be upset because of that poop they dropped on the rug, or the shoe they chewed that you left out. They only know you are upset about something, so they are doing what dogs do best to appease each other through nonthreatening body language.

The dog’s guilty look is a response to the owner’s behavior, and not necessarily indicative of any appreciation of its own misdeeds.

A study discovered that the “guilty” look people claim to see in their companion animal is directly related to whether or not the person expected to see the look, regardless of whether or not the dog had actually done something to be “guilty” about.  When a dog looks guilty it is because they are reacting to a change in our body language that tells them something is wrong.   This leads to a dog’s body language that appears worried or nervous to us.  In reality the dog has learned to exhibit these behaviors in order to appease humans who display angry or upset body language.  Details of the research studies are here and here.

Unless your dog has been going to canine church behind your back, and has been taught to feel guilty for moral or religious reasons, it’s safe to assume that they are not actually feeling guilty; they are using their canine senses and behavior to carefully appease your anger.

paw print

 You can learn more about this subject from dog behaviorists, and read their take on it here and here.

Learn more common myths and truths about dog behavior in Decoding Your Dog, a new book from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Drs. Debra Horwitz and John Ciribassi.

Myths About Dog Behavior
Myths About Dog Behavior

 Sources:

Scientific American

Discovery

Ladder of Aggression

The Ladder of Aggression:  What every dog guardian needs to know

Do you know the subtle signals that dogs give when they are stressed?  Did you know that if you don’t help your dog, they can escalate? Here’s a great way to see how your dog’s behavior can escalate into aggression.  Think of a ladder with many steps.  Each step represents a behavior that dogs will display when they are becoming more and more anxious, stressed and fearful.  If the dog continues to reach a maximum level of stress, aggression can result.  Aggression is the top rung of the ladder.  Since all dogs are individuals, every dog has a different way that he/she responds to stress, so we need to be aware of their individual behavior clues.

Ladder of Aggression

How a dog reacts to stress or a threat can be represented as a series of ascending steps on a ladder.  These gestures are responses to an escalation of perceived threat only and are NOT expressions of a ‘submissive’ or ‘dominant’ state.  The choice of strategy (whether to escalate to a bite or not) will depend on the circumstances (time, target, interactions, previous experience) and on the severity of any underlying physical disease.  Pain frequently converts a ‘flight’ response to ‘fight’.  – Ladder of Aggression by Kendal Shepherd


The behaviors on the lower rungs of the ladder (yawning, blinking, nose licking, turning head away, etc.) communicate in dog language, “I am feeling worried”, or “please calm down”.  The behaviors on the higher rungs of the ladder (growling, air snapping, biting) mean “Stop! Leave me alone right now! Go Away!”

Understanding what dogs are trying to communicate when they are stressed is how we become Conscious Companions, and prevent our dogs from moving up the Ladder of Aggression. This included our felines, too!


I would like to share something else with you:  A dog bite NEVER happens out of the blue.  Let me repeat that; a dog bite never happens out of the blue.

Why is this important to know?  Well, it means that all dog bites can be prevented if we learn to recognize the stressors and behaviors that a dog exhibits as they are becoming stressed.  Dogs will display specific behaviors (listed above in the image) well before they lunge or bite.

Make no mistake about it; it’s our job, our role, and our responsibility as their guardians to learn these behaviors and recognize these stages.  Prevention and safety begins with you!  Setting ourselves up for success is how we do this.

Set yourself and your dog up for success!  You Are Your Dog’s Advocate!

Can you think of a time when your dog was stressed?  How did you respond?  


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