Animal IQ

That Look on Your Dog's Face Isn't Guilt — It's Fear

Every dog owner knows that telltale look. You walk into the kitchen and see your freshly cooked casserole splattered over the floor—and your dog's face, which is wearing an expression guiltier than a criminal defendant. Or so you think. According to research, you're just imagining that your dog feels guilty. The real emotion it's feeling is fear.

The Science Doesn't Lie

For a study published in a 2009 dog-themed issue of the journal Behavioural Processes, Dr. Alexandra Horowitz and her team recruited 14 dogs and their owners to test the hypothesis that dogs act guilty after they've done something wrong. Each dog-human pair participated in nine separate trials where the human would show the dog a treat, demonstrate it was off limits by saying "no," place it on the floor out of the dog's reach, then leave the room. At that point, the experimenter would either take the treat away or offer it to the dog to eat. Twenty seconds later, the owner would come back in, and the experimenter would either tell the owner what the dog had done or lie about the dog's behavior. If the owner believed the dog had eaten the treat (whether or not it had), the dog got a scolding; if the owner believed the dog had behaved, the dog got a friendly greeting.

Later, researchers analyzed recordings of the experiments to watch for behaviors that the owners had identified as signs of guilt: "avoiding eye contact, lying down and rolling to the side or onto the back, dropping the tail, wagging low and quickly, holding one's ears down or head down, moving away from the owner, raising a paw, and licking." What did they find? Whether or not the dogs ate the treat had no effect on their behavior. The only thing to cause the so-called "guilty look" was the reaction of the owner. According to the study, "Scolding the dog led to significantly more [guilty behaviors] than greeting the dog, whether the dog had obeyed the owner's command or was guilty of violating the command." That is, the look you call guilt is actually just fear of getting in trouble.

Related Video: This Is What Dogs Really Miss When You Leave

How to Discipline With Love

It can be alarming to realize that your dog is actually afraid of you, but there are ways to discipline bad behavior that won't cause so much turmoil. PetFinder says that you should be consistent with your reward and punishment, and be sure not to reinforce behaviors you don't want repeated. ("A great example is when your dog brings you a toy and barks to entice you to throw it. You throw the toy. Your dog has just learned that barking gets you to do what he wants," they write.) Instead of telling your dog "no" during an unwanted behavior, instruct your dog what to do instead; for example, instead of saying "no" when your dog jumps on a stranger, say "sit" to reinforce a better behavior.

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast.

For more on how your dog thinks, check out "How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain" by Gregory Berns. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer March 3, 2017

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.