The “Guilty” Dog Phenomenon…..

You leave your dog alone for a little while, and you come home to discover something distroyed, or a steaming present waiting for you in the middle of the kitchen floor, and you shoot a glance at the dog……GUILTY! He has that look of defeat, because as a dog he just can’t hide it, right? Wrong!

Alexandra Horowitz, an assistant professor at Barnard College in NY set up an experiment where she lied to pet owners about their dog doing something wrong. Here is what she did:

"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."

What the research uncovered  was this: The dogs who appeared most "guilty" looking were the ones who were admonished by their owners for eating the treat. Interestingly, the ones who were described as most "guilty" looking were the dogs who were in fact obedient and did not eat the treat, but whose owners were misinformed by the researcher and told (falsely) that their dog ate the treat!  The research concluded that the dog’s guilty look is in fact a response to the owner’s behavior (body language, facial expressions, verbal admonishments) and not necessarily related to any canine self-awareness of bad behavior.

Trainers are always careful to be aware of anthropomorphism, the tendency to attribute human attributes of reasoning or emotion to dogs. The dog owning population is full of people who make these attributions, and we as trainers should be clear to not accept them when they are brought up in conversation. Even K9 handlers, who handle highly trained dogs in very important situations will still throw out the occasional anthropomorphisms.

Hand this article to all your fellow K9 handlers, so they can understand and appreciate the effect of the handler’s behavior and frame of mind on the dog’s behavior. Ths relationship, commonly referred to as the handler’s feelings "going down the leash" has a lot to do with the handler’s expectations and assumptions. If the handler thinks the dog is screwing up, say the handler assumes there is a drug hide in an area that was set up as a blank area, all it may take to make the dog false respond (throw out a sit or scratch) is body language and facial expressions, and voice patterns that indicate the handler is upset with the dog’s behavior. Even though in such a situation, the dog would be right and the handler wrong.

Here is the article reference: