What really prompts the dog's "guilty look"

New study reveals that the “guilty look” of dogs is a response to their owner’s behavior

Amsterdam, 11 June 2009 - What dog owner has not come home to a broken vase or other valuable items and a guilty-looking dog slouching around the house? By ingeniously setting up conditions where the owner was misinformed as to whether their dog had really committed an offense, Alexandra Horowitz, Assistant Professor from Barnard College in New York, uncovered the origins of the “guilty look” in dogs in the recently published “Canine Behaviour and Cognition” Special Issue of Elsevier’s Behavioural Processes.

Horowitz was able to show that the human tendency to attribute a “guilty look” to a dog was not due to whether the dog was indeed guilty. Instead, people see ‘guilt’ in a dog’s body language when they believe the dog has done something it shouldn’t have – even if the dog is in fact completely innocent of any offense.

During the study, owners were asked to leave the room after ordering their dogs not to eat a tasty treat. While the owner was away, Horowitz gave some of the dogs this forbidden treat before asking the owners back into the room. In some trials the owners were told that their dog had eaten the forbidden treat; in others, they were told their dog had behaved properly and left the treat alone. What the owners were told, however, often did not correlate with reality.

Whether the dogs' demeanor included elements of the "guilty look" had little to do with whether the dogs had actually eaten the forbidden treat or not. Dogs looked most “guilty” if they were admonished by their owners for eating the treat. In fact, dogs that had been obedient and had not eaten the treat, but were scolded by their (misinformed) owners, looked more “guilty” than those that had, in fact, eaten the treat. Thus the dog’s guilty look is a response to the owner’s behavior, and not necessarily indicative of any appreciation of its own misdeeds.

This study sheds new light on the natural human tendency to interpret animal behavior in human terms. Anthropomorphisms compare animal behavior to human behavior, and if there is some superficial similarity, then the animal behavior will be interpreted in the same terms as superficially similar human actions. This can include the attribution of higher-order emotions such as guilt or remorse to the animal.

The editor of the special issue, Clive D.L. Wynne of the Department of Psychology, University of Florida, explained, “this is a remarkably powerful demonstration of the need for careful experimental designs if we are to understand the human-dog relationship and not just reify our natural prejudices about animal behavior.” He pointed out that dogs are the oldest domesticated species and have a uniquely intimate role in the lives of millions of people. Recent research on dogs has indicated more human-like forms of reasoning about what people know than has been demonstrated even in chimpanzees.

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Notes to Editors: 
The article is “Disambiguating the “guilty look”: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour” by Alexandra Horowitz. The article appears in Behavioural Processes, Volume 81, Issue 3, Pages 447-452. doi:10.1016/j.beproc.2009.03.014
The Special issue is “Canine Behaviour and Cognition”, edited by Clive D.L. Wynne, Volume 81, Issue 3.
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/03766357

About Behavioural Processes 
Behavioural Processes is dedicated to the publication of high-quality original research on animal behaviour from any theoretical perspective. It welcomes contributions that consider animal behaviour, from behavioural analytic, cognitive, ethological, ecological and evolutionary points of view. This list is not intended to be exhaustive, and papers that integrate theory and methodology across disciplines are particularly welcome. The quality of research and focus on these aspects are the sole criteria for acceptance. Papers reporting solely on human behaviour may be considered for publication if they relate closely to non-human research within the journal's remit. Authors of papers reporting research on human subjects are invited to contact the editors for advice prior to submission, as they are for papers of all kinds.

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