JoAnna Lou
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Do Dogs Act Guilty?
New research looks at conflict deffusing behavior in canines
Is there a guilty face under that box of Cheez-Its?

74 percent of dog lovers believe that their pups act guilty when they've done something wrong.  There is plenty of evidence that dogs experience primary emotions, like happiness and fear, but it's hard to prove that they experience secondary emotions, like jealousy and guilt.

In 2009, Barnard College professor Alexandra Horowitz found that dogs were more likely to display behaviors we associate with guilt after being scolded. However, those who didn't misbehave appeared more guilty when scolded when compared to those who had actually done something wrong.

We know that over time canines evolved ways of communicating with humans, so is our dog's "guilty look" a learned response to diffuse conflict? Bark columnist and canine cognition researcher Julie Hecht and a team from Eotvos Lorand University set out to see if misbehaving canines would behave differently than dogs who had not done anything wrong and if people would be able to tell if their dog misbehaved based on their greeting behavior.

Like in the Barnard College study, the team found that dogs showed more guilt-associated behaviors when scolded. But then the findings got a little complicated.

Both groups of dogs were equally likely to act guilty whether they misbehaved or not, however dogs who actually did something wrong were more likely to show guilt-associated behaviors after subsequent greeting opportunities. So perhaps there is some element of guilt in our pups?

If there is, we're not very good at interpreting those signals. After accounting for people who knew their dogs had a history of stealing food, pet parents were not able to determine whether their pups misbehaved based on the greeting behavior.

Demystifying emotions like guilt and jealousy is difficult. But we're lucky to have many universities spearheading research in this area, so hopefully we'll know one day for sure.

Do you think that your dogs act guilty?

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.
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