Guilty-Looking Dogs
Falsely Accused

What dog owner has not come home to a broken vase or other valuable items and a guilty-looking dog slouching around the house?

Animal behaviorist
Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College in New York has effectively demonstrated that the "guilty look" in dogs has nothing to do with their true guilt or innocence.

In a study published in the "Canine Behaviour and Cognition" Special Issue of Elsevier's Behavioural Processes (Volume 81, Issue 3) , Horowitz was able to show that the human tendency to attribute a "guilty look" to a dog was not due to whether the dog was indeed guilty. Instead, people see 'guilt' in a dog's body language when they believe the dog has done something it shouldn't have – even if the dog is in fact completely innocent of any offense.
Photo by Michael Hofferber
Photo by Michael Hofferber.

During the study, owners were asked to leave the room after ordering their dogs not to eat a tasty treat. While the owner was away, Horowitz gave some of the dogs this forbidden treat before asking the owners back into the room. In some trials the owners were told that their dog had eaten the forbidden treat; in others, they were told their dog had behaved properly and left the treat alone. What the owners were told, however, often did not correlate with reality.

Whether the dogs' demeanor included elements of the "guilty look" had little to do with whether the dogs had actually eaten the forbidden treat or not. Dogs looked most "guilty" if they were admonished by their owners for eating the treat.

In fact, dogs that had been obedient and had not eaten the treat, but were scolded by their (misinformed) owners, looked more "guilty" than those that had, in fact, eaten the treat. Thus the dog's guilty look is a response to the owner's behavior, and not necessarily indicative of any appreciation of its own misdeeds.

"The dog is anticipating punishment around certain objects or when seeing the subtle clues from the owner that indicate he may be angry," Horowitz explains in Inside of a Dog. "As we know, dogs readily learn to notice associations between events."

Horowitz's study sheds new light on the natural human tendency to interpret animal behavior in human terms. Anthropomorphisms compare animal behavior to human behavior, and if there is some superficial similarity, then the animal behavior will be interpreted in the same terms as superficially similar human actions. This can include the attribution of higher-order emotions such as guilt or remorse to the animal.

"Anthropomorphisms often slide from benign to harmful. Some risk the welfare of animals under consideration. If we're to put a dog on antidepressants based on our interpretation of his eyes, we had better be pretty sure of our interpretation. When we assume we know what is best for an animal, extrapolating from what is best for us or any person, we may inadvertantly be acting at cross-purposes with our aims."

Source: Elsevier

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