The Mystery Of The “Guilty Look”


Is a “guilty look” a familiar dog behavior to you?  If so, was it associated with a misdeed such as a ruined shoe, stolen steak or other yummy food?

If you answered “yes” on this question, you probably misinterpreted the meaning of the “guilty look,” relying on anthropomorphism. However, you probably noted some recognizable guilty looking behaviors such as: dog avoids looking at you, turns eyes aside, cowers, or slinks back in a submissive way, etc., so, where do those behaviors came from?  To answer this question, Alexandra Horowitz, a scientist at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, New York, examined, in her article, what situation precedes the “guilty look.” In her study, she recruited 14 owners and their dogs. The owners were told that the researcher was testing their dogs for obedience at a distance.

Owners were asked to instruct his/her dog not to eat a treat and then leave the room. After they returned to the room, owners were asked to greet the dog if it had obeyed and did not eat the treat, and to scold the animal if it had disobeyed and ate the treat. During several trials, owners were purposely misinformed regarding whether their dog had disobeyed.

Horowitz found no association between the “guilty look” perceived by owners, which prompted the scolding, and whether the dogs had obeyed or not. However, more guilty look-associated behaviors were seen when owners were scolding their dog, whether the dog had eaten a forbidden treat or not. In this case, guilty behaviors were associated not with the dog disobeying but with the perception of guilt by the owner. The study did not disprove that dogs cannot feel guilt. Rather, it showed that what we think of as a dog’s “guilty look” is just a response to the appearance of a scolding human.

This is an important message to educate your potential adopters. Proper obedience training is always a better choice to teach a dog how to behave appropriately as opposed to scolding or reprimanding.

Reference:  Alexandra, H., 2009. Disambiguating the “guilty look”: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour. Behavioural Processes 81, 447-452.

– Anastasia Shabelansky, Research Analyst at the Center for Shelter Dogs