Mirkka Koivusalo, MSc, PhD, owner of Mindful Behaviors and co-owner of the Toronto Centre For Canine Education

You come home from work, open the front door, and see that the garbage has been knocked over and someone has had an all-you-can-eat buffet, or you find the remote control on the couch chewed to hundreds of pieces along with the pair of shoes you just bought. Then your dog comes to greet you, slinking back, cowering, and avoiding eye contact, with his ears pinned back and his tail tucked under. The only plausible explanation for his behaviour seems to be that he is feeling guilty for doing things he is not supposed to do – and you can’t help but feel he should!

We humans base this behavioural assumption on our own behaviour: we behave in a particular way when we feel guilty, therefore because the dog behaves in a similar way in equivalent circumstances, we assume that the behaviour we see in the dog is also accompanied by feelings of guilt. This is anthropomorphism: an attribution of human characteristics or behaviours to an animal.  Guilt is one of what are called secondary emotions, that is an emotional reaction that we have in response to other emotions. Is it possible that dogs, even though they aren’t cognitively at the same level as us humans, cannot only look guilty but also feel guilt? Can they reflect on their past actions and decide that they have done something wrong?

It is very difficult to know exactly what a dog is feeling with any certainty. However, behavioural scientist Dr. Alexandra Horowitz (2009) did study the lead up to the “guilty look.” For her study, dog owners would leave a treat on the ground, tell the dog to “leave it,” and then leave the room. A researcher stayed in the room with the dog and either let the dog eat the treat or took it away from them. Then the researcher told the owner to return and randomly varied the owner’s knowledge of what the dog did in their absence. If the owners were told that the dog had disobeyed, they would scold the dog, and if they were told that the dog had obeyed, they greeted the dog happily.

The results revealed that the guilty look was purely associated with the owner’s scolding: the dogs would show the guilty look in response to being scolded whether they had eaten the treat or not.

In fact, more “guilty look” behaviours were seen in trials when owners scolded their dogs when they had been obedient.  So why would the dog look guilty if they had done nothing wrong? This is inconsistent with the hypothesis that the guilty look is more intense or occurs only when the dog disobeys. Rather, a better description of the guilty look is that it is a response to the owner’s cues; the dog may look fearful in anticipation of punishment by the owner.  However, a lot of dog owners say that they can be unaware of a dog’s misdeed and it is the dog’s guilty behaviours that alert them to the fact that their dog has done something wrong in their absence, before they actually find out about it.

Hecht et al. (2012) studied:

  1. whether dogs show more guilty behaviours when greeting their owners when they had disobeyed rather than obeyed in the owners’ absence, and
  2. whether owners can tell if their dog had transgressed based solely on the dog’s greeting behaviour.

The authors of the study found that there were no significant differences between obedient and disobedient dogs in their display of guilty behaviours after having the opportunity to break a rule in their from a table were not more likely to look guilty than dogs who hadn’t eaten the food.  Also, when it came to an owner’s ability to recognize their dog’s transgressions based solely on the dog’s behaviour when returning to the room, the study found that owners could not reliably identify the guilty look without scolding the dog.

All in all, direct evidence supporting the claim that dogs can look guilty and know that they did something wrong is lacking. What seems a more plausible explanation is their ability to pick up on subtle social and environmental cues.

But what does this mean for the average dog owner? Next time you come home to a mess, don’t blame or scold your dog, regardless of how “guilty” you think they look. Keep garbage, food and any other forbidden items where your dog can’t access them, and make sure your dog gets their daily exercise and has lots of fun and safe activities to keep them occupied while you’re out.

Additional Reading

Hecht, Julie, Ádám Miklósi, and Márta Gácsi, “Behavioral Assessment and Owner Perceptions of Behaviors Associated with Guilt in Dogs.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 139, no. 1-2 (June 2012): 134–142.

Horowitz, Alexandra, “Disambiguating the ‘Guilty Look’: Salient Prompts to a Familiar Dog Behaviour.” Behavioural Processes 81, no. 3 (July 2009): 447–452.