In “Dogs’ ‘guilty’ behavior may be owners’ projection” (Seattle Times, July 3, 2009), Rob Stein reports that the “”guilty look dogs display may not be evidence that the dog is aware of guilt:
Horowitz asked each owner to show the dog a biscuit, instruct the dog not to eat it and leave the room. While the owner was gone, Horowitz either allowed the dog to eat the treat or removed it. The owner returned and was told the dog had obeyed the command or had been disobedient and had eaten the biscuit. Owners scolded the disobedient dogs. But half the time, the owners were told the truth about whether their dog had misbehaved while the other half were misled.
And this is the surprising thing: The dogs that had obeyed were just as likely as the ones that did not to exhibit one of nine behaviors associated with the “guilty look”: dropping their head, pulling their ears back, avoiding eye contact, rolling over onto their side or back, dropping their tails, quickly wagging a lowered tail, licking their lips, offering a paw or slinking away.
Horowitz found that the pooches were most likely to show such behaviors when their owner believed they had disobeyed and scolded them.
“The most guilty look was when the owner scolded an innocent dog,” she said. “It was a bit surprising.”
Really, it’s not all that surprising if we keep one thing in mind: The dog’s primary concern is to stay in good with his people. He lets them make the rules about life with humans. And he is never going to feel more guilty than when he doesn’t even know what he did wrong.
Horowitz stressed that her experiment “doesn’t mean dogs don’t feel guilty. When they are playing together, they have a code of behavior and can distinguish right from wrong. … But I can’t claim to know what they are feeling.”
Horowitz concluded that such behavior is most likely the result of subtle cues that dogs picked up from their owners that make them anticipate punishment, rather than the dogs feeling guilty.
I always suggest that people who think there’s no trick to understanding animal minds begin with “What is it like to be a bat?” by philosopher Thomas Nagel, if only to get some sense of the questions we want to know the answers to.