It's no question that the relationship between a woofer and its human is unlike any other. It's a pup's unconditional love, endless snuggles and their ability to tell when we're happy, angry, or upset that can turn having a dog from being another responsibility to a joyous experience of companionship. But while doggos may be pros at identifying a person's emotions, humans aren't the best when it comes to reading their dogs, especially during a scolding.
Once a dog's busted for misbehaving, out comes the doggy guilt. We're talking the pulled-back ears, apprehensive movements, indirect eye contact, repetitive nose licking -- we've all fallen victim to the cuteness overload that results from a dog's "guilty" look. But contrary to popular belief, guilt is just an inference we as humans make based on our expression of human emotion. In fact, dog cognition scientist Dr. Alexandra Horowitz found in a study that these behaviors are all indicative of fear, rather than guilt.
Horowitz studied the behaviors of 14 domestic dogs to understand better how humans construe dog emotions, with the "guilty" look being the focal point of the study. The methodology included a series of opportunities "for dogs to disobey an owner's command to not eat a desirable treat while the owner was out of the room," while also varying "the owners' knowledge of what their dogs did in their absence."
Results concluded that the behaviors humans attribute to the guilty look were far more evident in trials where owners scolded their dogs. So, those behaviors are essentially reactions to "owner cues" instead of an "appreciation of a misdeed," as Horowitz puts it. If the dog ate the treat but was not scolded, the dog was unlikely to exhibit the "guilty" behaviors.
So does your doggo really feel guilty about eating that forbidden treat? Probably not. But will they act like it when you start wagging your finger and raising your voice at them? They might look guilty, but they're probably feeling fear.
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