The Doctor's In - That “Guilty Look”

The Doctor's In - That “Guilty Look”
Dr. Betsy Brevitz tackles common veterinary vexations

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Two of the most common negative assumptions people make about dog behaviour are that (1) dogs know when they’ve done something wrong, and (2) dogs sometimes do bad things on purpose to get back at their owner. In fact, the human emotions guilt and spite are not part of the canine repertoire. Understanding what your dog is really telling you with that “guilty look” or misbehaviour will defuse your anger and help you deal with the situation more appropriately.

Say you come home from the movies to discover that your dog has strewn the contents of the kitchen garbage can all over the floor. Your dog greets you at the door with his head down, his ears back, and his tail low and wagging slowly. He’s telling you he feels guilty, because he knows he shouldn’t have gotten into the garbage, right?

Wrong. What his posture is really saying is he’s happy to see you, but he knows you’re angry at him—from your tense, jerky body movements, explosive sigh, or tone of voice, or because you’ve been mad at him before when you first got home. He doesn’t know why you’re angry with him this time, nor does he understand and remember everything you don’t want him to do. Can you explain the problem to him by pointing angrily at the mess and saying “Bad dog!”? Nope. “The evidence” and the behaviour that put it there aren’t connected in a dog’s brain. That’s why it’s pointless to punish a dog for a misdeed after the fact. He won’t make the connection.

So what should you do when you come home to find garbage on the floor? Remember that your dog doesn’t know what he did wrong, greet him neutrally, clean up the mess, and resolve to lock up the kitchen garbage can more securely the next time you go out.

Then there’s the “spite” scenario. You return to your apartment after a rare evening out, greet your Yorkshire Terrier with a cuddle and a dog biscuit, and climb into bed—only to sit squarely on the wet spot where your Yorkie has urinated while you were out. The dog urinated on your bed. Clearly she’s getting back at your for leaving her home alone, right? Wrong again. She may dislike being left alone, it’s true, but she did not consciously choose a medium (urine) and a location (your side of the bed) to get her point across. A more likely interpretation is that she got on your bed because it’s comfortable and comforting, and she urinated out of separation anxiety, not spite.

What should you do about a dog who urinates, defecates, or is destructive when left alone? Remember that the dog is not doing it to get back at you. Remember that punishing her for something she did as little as five minutes ago is pointless.

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Comments (8)

I have come home before and not seen anything wrong and yet my dog will still greet me with the "guilty look" at the door, or not greet me at all! THEN I come in and find a mess further into the house, but the dog hasn't seen me OR a reaction from me yet, so how could this be a reaction to my body language when I have no inclination that anything is wrong, therefore am not projecting that she has done anything wrong? I understand and appreciate your opinion on this matter, but I very much believe that dogs can and DO experience feelings of guilt, or at least know when they've done something they're not supposed to. It's been said before they don't experience love and that's been disproved, I have no reason to believe this will not be disproved as well.
Fri, 05/11/2012 - 10:12
I am surprised that there is no mention of appeasing behavior in this article. The lowered tail, head down, slow wagging, avoiding eye contact--dogs do these all the time whether with humans or with other dogs that they just meet. Appeasement--the classic show that "You are bigger-stronger/more powerful/more important than me, so I will try to look unassuming/small/helpless/like an infant do you don't get upset/harm me/react unpredictably."

It may be that dogs are aware that they did something that displeased a human (for unknown reasons to them), they may connect that their actions are going to result in a unpredictable changes of behavior from the humans, or who knows, maybe they do feel guilt--but I do wish that this article went into more detail on how these canine displays are not solely when there human is currently getting angry with them.
Thu, 08/22/2013 - 12:45
Sorry for typos--writing on my phone.
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Sat, 07/14/2012 - 00:03
I agree with Meghan! My dog rarely does anything destructive, but when she does she will greet with a slinky, guilty look even if I don't see whatever it is until later! I'll greet her with a happy, lovey tone of voice.
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Sun, 12/16/2012 - 19:35
THANK YOU for informing dog owners, lets hope we all learn to take heed. Poor misunderstood poochies!
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