Many people tell me that their dog knows it has done something wrong, because as they walk through the door after a busy day and notice the puddle on the floor, they see their dog crouched down, approaching very cautiously, tail wagging low, head slightly turned to the side, while making quick upper lip licks.
Dogs excel at reading emotions and owner intentions. As we notice the mess, we have an automatic emotional reaction that the dog immediately sees. To avoid scolding, our dogs then do what comes naturally and express appeasement signals. They may look guilty, but what they are really feeling is fear of being scolded. This is not an indicator of their ability to draw any correlation with the act they have committed. That’s already in the past. After a few repetitions, the dog starts expressing the same fear signals prior to the owner’s notice of the puddle. Just like us, dogs are designed to notice patterns, so quickly learns that puddle on the floor and presence of owner is bad news.
One of many formal studies on the subject, involving Alexandra Horowitz (2009), and author of the book ‘Inside of a Dog”, demonstrated that, whether or not the dog appears guilty to the owner has nothing to do with what he actually did. In the study, owners were asked to leave the room telling their dog not to touch a treat left in their reach. One group of dogs was fed the treat by the experimenter, the other group was not. When the owners returned, they were either told that the dog left the treat alone, or had disregarded them and eaten it. What the owners did not know, is that what they were told was not necessarily true. The results of the study revealed that the ‘guilty’ look on the dog had little to do with whether or not he had eaten the forbidden treat. It had everything to do with how the owner reacted when given the news.
These studies showed that our dogs have all the basic emotions such as joy, fear, anger, disgust and even love, but not the more complex ones such as guilt, pride or shame, demonstrating one of the many misunderstandings that can occur between humans and their pets, and although natural, we should remember dogs and humans are two different species with two different thought processes.