We have all seen it. You come home, open the door, and maybe it’s the scent of urine or stool that greets your nostrils, or maybe it is the sight of trash strewn all over the room. Your dog was naughty while you were out. You turn to your pooch, understandably upset, and start to scold, “Bad boy! How could you!” Your dog slinks away, shame written all over his face.
Most owners swear that their dogs know they done something wrong, that their “look” of guilt means that they know why we are upset. Most of us puzzle over why our so eager to please companion would want to do something that they seem to know makes us so angry! Many owners even speculate that our dogs must be doing it on purpose, exacting a form of canine revenge because we go out and leave them all alone.
But truth be told this is not the case. Dogs while very intelligent, are not a vengeful species. Their antics while we are out are not premeditated and spiteful like we may think. They are far too immediate and responsive to our body language for all that. Remember dogs are body language communicators, they read us far better than we even read ourselves. What your dog responds to is your displeased body language, your angry tone of voice, maybe even some sort pheromone that we excrete. The smell of fury if you will. Those are the things that make your dog slink away, not shame over the mess they created. Pair this with the fact that you always find their tidbits at your homecoming and pretty soon you have classical conditioning working against you. Now you have a dog that is instantly guilty and dreading your arrival the second you walk in the door, mess or no mess. Trust me! This is an experiment I have already conducted. Well science has some more information on why your dog wears that “guilty” expression, and you might find the results surprising. Not only is our dog reading our angry body language and reacting to that, but we are in fact imagining their guilty body language. Talk about being on different wavelengths. This article from ScienceDaily (June 11, 2009) — really explores the depths of our misunderstanding.
By ingeniously setting up conditions where the owner was misinformed as to whether their dog had really committed an offense, Alexandra Horowitz, Assistant Professor from Barnard College in New York, uncovered the origins of the “guilty look” in dogs in the recently published “Canine Behaviour and Cognition” Special Issue of Elsevier’s Behavioural Processes. 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. 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. This 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. The editor of the special issue, Clive D.L. Wynne of the Department of Psychology, University of Florida, explained, “this is 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 behavior.” He pointed out that dogs are the oldest domesticated species and have a uniquely intimate role in the lives of millions of people. Recent research on dogs has indicated more human-like forms of reasoning about what people know than has been demonstrated even in chimpanzees.
The above story is reprinted from materials provided by Elsevier, via AlphaGalileo and Science Daily at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090611065839.htm