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A Lesson With Laura – Guilty or Not Guilty?…

By Ash Tree Vets | 31st July 2019

This month I’m are exploring with you the concept of guilt in dogs – this is a longer and more in-depth article, but I hope you will enjoy it…

The topic of emotion in dogs is complex and often very open to interpretation.

It is widely accepted that dogs can experience basic emotions such as fear, frustration and happiness, however it is thought that secondary or more complex emotions such as jealousy and guilt require a higher degree of ‘self-awareness’ and a ‘theory of mind’ that has not yet been proven in dogs.

Why is it then that our dogs often look ‘guilty’ when they have done something wrong?

Often when an owner is talking to me about their dog’s behaviour they will use phrases such as ‘he knew what he had done wrong’ or ‘she looked guilty when I walked in’. When asked to describe exactly what their dog was doing to make them look guilty I usually get a description that looks something like this; submissive body posture, low wagging tail, avoiding eye contact with owner, hiding away,  ears back, paw raised in the air and tail fixed between the legs.

Does this guilty look sound familiar? But could it be that these behaviours represent something else entirely?

As humans it is easy for us to put human emotions onto our dogs, this is called anthropomorphism and is very easy for us to do whether intentionally or unintentionally.  We take the outward display of our dog’s behaviour and take this to mean that this is how the dog must be feeling.

In actual fact it may surprise you that the body language of a ‘guilty’ dog exactly matches that of a nervous or fearful dog. A research study was conducted by Horowitz (2009) in which it was suggested that the ‘guilty’ behaviour displayed by dogs was in fact a nervous response to the owners scolding. This theory was put to the test in an experiment in which the owner put a treat on the floor and told their dog not to eat it (leave it) and then left the room. The experimenter then either fed the treat to the dog or removed the treat so that the dog couldn’t eat it (without the owner knowing). The dog’s owner was told that the dog had or had not eaten the treat and that they either had to tell the dog off when they entered the room or that they should greet the dog in a friendly manner. As expected the ‘guilty’ dogs showed all of the behaviours described above, BUT here’s the twist: in some of the trials the owner was told that the dog had eaten the treat when in fact the dog had not eaten the treat (not guilty) and in some trials the dog had eaten the treat but the owner was told that the dog had left it alone (guilty). The results of the study showed that regardless of whether the dog was actually ‘guilty’ of eating the treat or not; if the owner told the dog off (tone of voice) when they entered the room the dog ‘looked guilty’. The results therefore are consistent with the suggestion that it is the owner’s reaction to the dog’s behaviour, NOT the dog’s emotion of guilt that triggers the ‘guilty’ look.

In short, when your dog is acting ‘guilty’ it is more likely that they are responding anxiously towards your body language or tone of voice.

Why is all this important I hear you say?!

When we expect too much from our dogs and assume that they know when they are doing wrong it can cause serious miscommunication between us and ultimately affect our relationship with our best friend.

My suggestion would always be focus more on what you want from your dog, rather than what you don’t want. Heavily reward the behaviours that you want from your dog and they will be much less likely to choose the behaviours you don’t want; and therefore not have to feel ‘guilty’ about it!


I’m always up for a good old chat about the subject of emotion in dogs so please do get in touch with me, I’d truly love to hear from you.

Also remember to check out previous ‘Lessons’ on our website.