“He knows it’s naughty, he has that guilty look when I get home!”
I’ve heard the above statement, or a variation of it, said more times than I can remember. It usually follows a repeat misbehaviour on the part of the dog, and more often than not the situation involves the owner either coming home or discovering the evidence following a period of no supervision.
So why do I cringe internally every time I hear an owner describe their dog as “guilty”?
Guilt is a human concept. To know you are guilty you must be able to grasp the concept of right and wrong, which is a fairly abstract concept. Humans know that it’s wrong to steal, and right to help people. We know that it’s wrong to lie, and right to eat well end exercise. Dogs don’t, at least not in the way we do.
Dogs experience the world in things that pay off, and things that don’t. Raiding the trash when no one is home pays off, because you get that stinky old piece of ham that has been wafting past your nose all day. Raiding the trash when mum is in the kitchen does not pay off, she’ll probably yell at you and shoo you out of the room. Is Fido raiding the trash knowing full well that it is a bad thing to do? No! He is just trying to locate that super tasty morsel you tossed out last night!
So then why does Fido look so darn guilty when you walk in and find that he’s been in the trash (or wrecked your shoes, dug up the yard, pooped in the house, etc)? The “guilty look” that people describe in dogs is actually a combination of appeasement signals that your dog is offering to try to reduce your bad mood. Dogs have been bred for decades to tune into our body language, this helps us work together so well. It also means they can tell very quickly if we’re about to get mad. We might walk in and see that they’ve done something naughty, and suddenly we tense up, our mouth makes a thin, angry line, we might furrow our eyebrows, our voice is probably deep when we call their name. We are a sending our dog all the signs that say “you’re about to get in trouble”. They will respond by wagging their tail low and quick, or even between their legs. They will lower their head and put their ears back. They will avoid eye contact. They might even creep up to us and roll over to expose their belly. Sure looks guilty, but it’s not!
There is no benefit to applying human concepts, such as “guilt”, to our dogs. If we assume that Fido knows he shouldn’t do that, then we are putting the blame on Fido rather than thinking of useful ways to teach Fido the right things to do. We are failing to set him up to succeed. Always remember that dogs will repeat behaviours that pay off – try to work out what about this “misbehaviour” is paying off, and change things so it stops working.