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“Guilty look” in dogs mostly owners’ fantasy, study finds

June 15, 2009
Courtesy Elsevier Publishing
and World Science staff

What dog own­er has not come home to a bro­ken vase or oth­er val­u­a­ble items and a guilty-looking ca­nine slouch­ing around the house? 

But that “guilty look” is mostly in the own­er’s head, ac­cord­ing to re­search­er Al­ex­an­dra Hor­o­witz of Bar­nard Col­lege in New York, who set up a study in which own­ers were mis­led as to wheth­er their dog had really com­mit­ted an of­fense.

that “guilty look” is mostly in the own­er’s head, ac­cord­ing to re­search­er Al­ex­an­dra Hor­o­witz of Bar­nard Col­lege in New York, who set up a study in which own­ers were mis­led as to wheth­er their dog had really com­mit­ted an of­fense.


Hor­o­witz found that peo­ple see “guilt” in a dog’s body lan­guage when they think the dog did some­thing wrong – even if it did­n’t.

The re­search is newly pub­lished in a a spe­cial is­sue on dog cog­ni­tion of the jour­nal Be­havioural Pro­cesses.

In 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 snack alone. What the own­ers were told, how­ev­er, was of­ten false. 

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, Hor­o­witz said. 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 eat­en the treat. 

The stu­dy, Hor­o­witz said, sheds light on the nat­u­ral hu­man ten­den­cy to in­ter­pret an­i­mal be­hav­ior in hu­man terms.

“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,” said the ed­i­tor of the spe­cial is­sue, psy­chol­o­gist Clive D.L. Wynne of the Un­ivers­ity of Flor­i­da.


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What dog owner has not come home to a broken vase or other valuable items and a guilty-looking canine slouching around the house? But that “guilty look” is mostly in the owner’s head alone, according to researcher Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College in New York, who set up a study in which owners were misled as to whether their dog had really committed an offense. Horowitz found that people see “guilt’” in a dog’s body language when they think the dog did something wrong – even if it didn’t. The research is newly published in a a special issue on dog cognition of the journal Behavioural Processes. In 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 snack alone. What the owners were told, however, was often false. 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, Horowitz said. 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 eaten the treat. The study, Horowitz said, sheds light on the natural human tendency to interpret animal behavior in human terms. “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,” said the editor of the special issue, psychologist Clive D.L. Wynne of the University of Florida.