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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Submitted by Ann Mason | June 8 2012 |

The dog I grew up with, Theodora, had an overdeveloped conscience. She would feel guilty about a lot of things, and it wasn't an act. We were constantly trying to build up her self-confidence, but we were never sure how to do it. We adopted Theodora from a shelter when she was nine months old, and since she was afraid of rolled up newspapers we strongly suspected she had been abused in her previous home. She may have had an ongoing problem with shame because the first nine months of her life were spent emphasizing what she had allegedly done wrong.

Submitted by Anonymous | November 10 2012 |

Dogs do feel guilty. When I was growing up, my mother had made a big platter of veal cutlet and put it on the kitchen table, which had been set for dinner. We all (except for our dog) then went into the living room to watch a little TV while we were waiting for my father to get home from work so that we could all eat dinner together. Around ten minutes later, the dog entered the living room not walking, but slinking, with an INCREDIBLY guilty look on her face. Just looking at her, you could tell she did SOMETHING she knew was wrong. Well, when I alerted my mother to the dog's behavior she got up and checked the kitchen and there was the platter that had held several pounds of veal cutlet, now completely empty and at the edge of the table. The dog had eaten ALL of the veal cutlet we were supposed to have for dinner that night and THAT is why she was acting like she was guilty of something. And, her guilty behavior occurred without any of us saying a word to her since at that point, none of us had a clue that she had done anything wrong. In fact, it was solely HER BEHAVIOR and guilty look that clued us in to check to see what she had done. The dog ate well that night and we ended up eating something much less delicious for dinner, like omelets or soup.

Submitted by Mel | October 22 2013 |

Oh, yes...when my dogs started tipping the trash can in the kitchen, I would come home from work, seeing the mess on the floor and my dogs (normally joyful greeters of the woman who earns the dogs chows), there were no dogs in sight....neither of them offered to leave the bed. When called, the big, lanky black dog came first and stuck only his head around the kitchen door with a funny look on his face and his ears all wrinkled up (this was his guilty look). The beagle wouldn't leave the bed for anything.

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