Flashback Friday: Do dogs really have a “guilty look”?

By Seriously Science | February 13, 2015 11:55 am

wasnt-me-dog-15101-e1326073781636Does the dog in the photo look guilty to you? If you are a dog owner, you might be more likely to answer yes to this question. But is there any scientific basis to the idea that dogs can look guilty? To find out, these researchers videotaped 14 different dogs in different situations, including giving the dogs “the opportunity…to disobey an owner’s command not to eat a desirable treat while the owner was out of the room.” Later, the owner either did or did not scold the dog for eating the treat. After careful analysis of the videotapes, the scientists found that the dogs only displayed the owner-identified “guilty look” when they were scolded, and especially when they had actually been obedient. Based on these results, the authors conclude that the so-called “guilty look” has more to do with being scolded rather than the dog actually knowing that he did something wrong. 

Disambiguating the “guilty look”: salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour.

“Anthropomorphisms are regularly used by owners in describing their dogs. Of interest is whether attributions of understanding and emotions to dogs are sound, or are unwarranted applications of human psychological terms to non-humans. One attribution commonly made to dogs is that the “guilty look” shows that dogs feel guilt at doing a disallowed action. In the current study, this anthropomorphism is empirically tested. The behaviours of 14 domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) were videotaped over a series of trials and analyzed for elements that correspond to an owner-identified “guilty look.” Trials varied the opportunity for dogs to disobey an owner’s command not to eat a desirable treat while the owner was out of the room, and varied the owners’ knowledge of what their dogs did in their absence. The results revealed no difference in behaviours associated with the guilty look. By contrast, more such behaviours were seen in trials when owners scolded their dogs. The effect of scolding was more pronounced when the dogs were obedient, not disobedient. These results indicate that a better description of the so-called guilty look is that it is a response to owner cues, rather than that it shows an appreciation of a misdeed.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: fun with animals, told you so
  • john rittel

    Poorly done research. 14 dogs? Get real, this is not a scientific study. Was this done by cat owners who hate dogs? Or people that have never had a dog as a pet? Or people that just learned what the misused term anthropomorphism means. Dogs have better non-verbal communication than humans ever thought of. How do wolves and dog packs organize their extremely complicated hunting techniques without a spoken language? Maybe we should try canidpomorphism.

    • jdb26354

      It was a group of 14 candid, articulate dogs, lending weight to the findings.

    • Hillary’s Southern Accent

      you sound mad bro

  • Glen

    Sorry I’m skeptical.

    I’ve tried to trick my dog by scolding him for something he knew he was not responsible for and gotten nothing more than a quizzical look from him or a look of “Hey don’t blame me. I didn’t do it.”.

    Whereas he will definitely give the guilty look when scolded for doing something he knows he wasn’t permitted to do.

    • Justwaitinforchange

      I agree with you. When my dog would shred paper all I had to do was ask her if she did it and she would cower. If she didn’t tear the paper – should wouldn’t blink or react. So I call bs on this study.

      • Blargette

        I can say to my dog “Are you telling me the sky is blue?” in a certain tone and face and… guilty expression comes. I used to show people occasionally for a laugh, but never do it anymore. It gave me guilty face.

  • polistra24

    I don’t buy the simple explanation.

    Several of the popular Guilty Dog videos involve a group of dogs. When the owner comes home and scolds everyone, only one dog shows guilt. We don’t know if that one dog was in fact the culprit, but an experiment with cameras running all the time could settle the question.

  • fredgill

    We had a very bright cattle dog who clearly displayed guilty looks and body language, even when she had not been scolded and well before we were aware of the behavior (i.e., a discarded takeout container filched from the trash can). I know she really wasn’t feeling guilty since she was far too haughty for that. But she certainly was trying to look that way, the better to manipulate us. And a 14 dog sample? Come on.

  • BertaD

    I once had a cat who got himself locked behind doors all the time. (He was an escape artist wannabee and kept experimenting with doors.) When he had gone missing, I’d ask his littermate: Where’s Sam? If Sam was locked in the basement his bro would go sit by the basement door. If Sam was in the garage, his mate would sit by that door. If he was in a closet, his mate would sit by the closet door. He was never wrong. When I opened the indicated door, Sam was always there. Then one day a small female cat turned up at my door, so now I had two boys and the girl. When something was amiss — something knocked over or shredded I would ask sternly “who did that?” And two heads would turn to look at the guilty party. So you can take your “scientific study” and stuff it. The animals are just messing with you. They understand a lot more than they let on to strangers.

  • R, Kessler

    The most the scientists could have tested was 14 breeds. There is definitely a difference in the intelligence of breeds. The more intelligent the dog the more apt to know the difference between right and wrong.

    I had one dog that preferred the carpet to going outside. When that happened you had to look for him because he would hide.

  • Charybdis

    These people are morons. We would go on day trips and when we got home if our dog had made an accident on the kitchen floor she would greet us with her head down and tail between her legs instead of her usually barking cheerful greeting. You would know before you had the key out of the door and certainly before discovering it. Not to mention we NEVER scolded her for this as it was not her fault that we were not home to let her out. Sometimes people can be really stupid about the intelligence of animals.

  • http://www.Schundler.net Rjschundlr

    A better test would have been to have three dogs in a room, and have the owner leave, wait until one of the dogs misbehave … the owner does not know which …. but when the owner ask, “who did ….?” Two dogs will look innocents, and one will give himself away….

  • wonkawoo602

    Completely bogus. When you come home, something is eaten/destroyed, and the dogs are hiding, how can you chalk their appearance up to post-scolding when a scolding hasn’t yet occurred?

  • Blargette

    Have to agree with the complaint about 14 dog sample.

    But since you went there…

    I have had a grand total of 6 dogs. I have found that the dogs in my later life where they were with me pretty much 24 /7 (2 dogs) – they copped the same “guilty look” if they were guilty or not depending on the vibe I gave off. They sort of trained me not to walk about with an attitude unless I was really pissed. Who can bear guilty look? I would never tolerate guilty look in humans cuz they know better. Dogs just want to please and are often confused by the complexities of human emotion. Hmmm… who isn’t?- – poor men.

    That said – give me a dog over a cat. Dogs at least look like they are trying to run with the pack amicably.

  • Blargette

    Has anyone seen the video of Denver the lab? That could be my dog or probably any other lab/golden with guilty face. It does exist. And the other dog in the video (also a lab I think). Stone faced when accused.

    We send out dog to the penalty box too. She knows exactly what it is and where to go – her bed – which is punishment and also her happy place when we call it her beddyby. Dogs. Love.

  • GilbertPinson

    This is only anecdotal, but there is a certain position my dog gets into when I come home, regardless of my mood or reaction to seeing her, which means I will find something chewed up that shouldn`t be.


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