"I look at a dog showing the guilty look and it feels guilty to me. It does! We're kind of wired to see it this way, so it's nobody's fault," Dr. Horowitz told me in a recent interview.
The look is distinct: The dog cowers, showing the whites of its eyes while looking up at you. Maybe it pins its ears back to its head, yawns, or licks the air. These are all characteristic signs of fear in a dog — signs that us humans tend to misattribute as guilt.
Horowitz's 2009 study is a clear demonstration of how humans tend to anthropomorphize their dogs. Here's how the study went, and what it revealed, based on the abstract:
- "Trials varied the opportunity for dogs to disobey an owner's command to not eat a desirable treat while the owner was out of the room, and varied the owners' knowledge of what their dogs did in their absence."
- "The results revealed no difference in behaviors associated with the guilty look. By contrast, more such behaviors were seen in trials when owners scolded their dogs. The effect of scolding was more pronounced when the dogs were obedient, not disobedient."
- "These results indicate that a better description of the so-called guilty look is that it is a response to owner cues, rather than that it shows an appreciation of a misdeed."
To put that a bit more succinctly, the study found that dogs demonstrating a "guilty" look were actually demonstrating fear of scolding ("owner cues") rather than guilt ("an appreciation of a misdeed").
So, do dogs experience guilt? Maybe, maybe not.
"It seems unlikely that they have the same types of thinking about thinking that we do, because of their really different brains, but in most ways dogs brains are more similar to ours than dissimilar," Dr. Horowitz told me.
That first bit is especially important — the concept of "thinking about thinking," sometimes known as "executive function" — because it means dogs aren't likely to reflect on their past actions and decide they've done something wrong.