Your dog does not feel guilty

How many times have you seen that ‘guilty’ look on your dog’s face?

According to a new study, although you might think your dog ‘looks guilty’ in actual fact, your dog doesn’t feel guilt at all.

During a study by Alexandra Horowitz of New York’s Barnard College, Horowitz claims to show that humans tend to see guilt in a dog’s body language when they themselves think that the dog has done something he or she should not have.

Horowitz set up conditions so the dog’s owner was misinformed that the dog had done something they shouldn’t have. The study was videotaped. Dog owners were told to order their dog not to eat a particularly tasty or favourite treat and then asked to leave the room. Horowitz then gave a few of the dogs some of the forbidden foot and invited the owner back into the room.

In some cases, the owners were told the dog ate the food and in others the owner was told their dog had behaved and not touched the treat. In many cases, the owner was told a different story to the truth.

The dogs were shown to ‘look guilty’ if they were then admonished by the owner. Actually, dogs that had obeyed and not touched the food but were still ‘told off’ by their owner, appeared to look more guilty than those who had actually misbehaved.

As a result, Horowitz’ study appears to show that the guilty look is simply a response to their owner’s behaviour and not a sign of understanding their own misdeed.

Within the study were 14 pairs of dog plus owner, which consisted of eight female dogs and six males. Eight dogs were purebred, six were mongrels and the dog breeds including two dachshunds, a shih tzu, a Labrador, a Tibetan terrier and others.

Full details of the study are available in the July issue of the Behavioural Processes journal, where the editor psychologist Clive Wynne commented on the study, saying it was:

“a remarkably powerful demonstration of the need for careful experimental designs if we are to understand the human-dog relationship and not just reify our natural prejudices about animal behaviour”