Why Does Your Dog Do "That Look" When They've Done Something Wrong?

A dog doing dog stuff that typically annoys humans a fair amount. Helioscribe/Shutterstock

You’ve just arrived home and you find your new sofa in shreds and a big wet patch on the carpet. Your dog literally has its “tail between its legs” and "puppy dog eyes”. Aside from the obvious, what’s this body language all about from an animal behavior perspective?

Writing in a blog post and in Psychology Today, Professor Nathan H Lents – author of Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals – explained that this is an “apology bow” that is a sophisticated social behavior that can be traced back to wolves.

Lents starts by explaining that the behavior has been studied fairly extensively within wolf packs. If a wolf bites another wolf during a play fight, this is often considered a breach of the pack’s implicit social rules. The offending wolf will be “shunned” from the group and only allowed to return if they issue this “apology bow”.

“Dogs have inherited this behavior and they will use it after any kind of infraction that results in being punished,” Professor Lents said.

It’s a posture of submission, much like a bow – the head is lowered, direct eye contact is avoided, and the tail is rendered neutral.

You might think that this could be misread as a hostile action, as a lowered head and a tucked-in tail could be likened to a canine stalking prey.

In answer to that, Lents concluded by saying: “Facial expressions and body language are rich forms of communication among animals and a complex array of signals can be conveyed with just a few gestures. The key is context. Just like humans rarely misinterpret a smile from a snarl, animals surely understand the subtleties of their own body language.

It isn’t known whether dogs can feel guilt or shame in the same ways humans experience it. However, a previous study from 2009 looking into the “guilty look” of dogs came to the conclusion that dogs are not actually expressing that they've done wrong, but rather acting in response to the behavioral signal of their owner, who presumably is pretty annoyed the dog chewed up their new trainers.

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