The Guilty Look

Discussion in 'Advanced Dog Training' started by Adrianna & Calvin, Oct 2, 2012.

  1. Adrianna & Calvin Experienced Member

    This thread is on judging dog's behavior based on human behavior, aka anthropomorphism. A recent study on the "guilty look" found that dogs got the 'look' when their owners thought they were guilty, not when they actually were guilty. Here's the study abstract, followed by my translation (since not all DTA members are native English speakers, and a formal writing English is used in science papers):

    Behav Processes. 2009 Jul;81(3):447-52.
    Disambiguating the "guilty look": salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour.

    Horowitz A.
    Anthropomorphisms are regularly used by owners in describing their dogs. Of interest is whether attributions of understanding and emotions to dogs are sound, or are unwarranted applications of human psychological terms to non-humans. One attribution commonly made to dogs is that the "guilty look" shows that dogs feel guilt at doing a disallowed action. In the current study, this anthropomorphism is empirically tested. The behaviours of 14 domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) were videotaped over a series of trials and analyzed for elements that correspond to an owner-identified "guilty look." Trials varied the opportunity for dogs to disobey an owner's command not to 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 behaviours associated with the guilty look. By contrast, more such behaviours 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.

    Here is my loose interpretation/translation:

    Owners regularly describe their dogs using human terms. We would like to know if attributing human understanding and emotions to dogs is reliable, or if it's an unnecessary application of human psychological terms to non-humans. One common belief is that the 'guilty look' shows that dogs feel guilt at doing something they aren't allowed to. In the current study, this anthropomorphism is tested by experiment. The behaviours of 14 domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) were videotaped over a series of trials and analyzed for anything that corresponded to an owner-identified "guilty look." The experiment used multiple trials, and in some cases the dogs were prevented from stealing a desirable treat while the owner was out of the room, while in others, the dogs were allowed to eat it. The owners weren't always told what their dog did in their absence (sometimes they were told he ate the treat when he didn't, or that he didn't eat the treat when he did). The results revealed no difference in behaviours associated with the guilty look. [The dogs who ate the treat did not look more guilty than those who didn't.] By contrast, more such behaviours were seen in trials when owners scolded their dogs. [So, the dogs looked more guilty when scolded, regardless of whether or not they had really eaten the treat.] The effect of scolding was more pronounced [the dogs looked more guilty] 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 the dog understands s/he has done something wrong.

    So, basically, the dogs looked guilty if the owner thought the dog had stolen a treat, not if the dog actually stole it. In fact, "innocent" dogs tended to look the most guilty when accused of the crime!

    How should this affect the way we treat dogs? The way we use punishment? The types of training methods we use? Do you think your dogs have looked 'guilty'? How would you interpret a guilty look after reading this?
    JazzyandVeronica and MaryK like this.

  2. 648117 Honored Member


    Holly does not have a "guilty look". She has never looked guilty for doing anything.

    She never gets told off for doing something naughty unless she is caught in the act (I just say "what do you think you are doing?" so it isn't even really being told off). And even then she does not look guilty she just stops what she's doing and stares at me, then she walks off like nothing has happened or runs towards me (most of the time when she is being a brat she is wanting attention - she likes to jump onto my desk and steal things like pens and coasters so I have to get them off her or she will chew them up :cautious: ).

    When I discover Holly's done something bad when no one was watching she doesn't get told off, there is no point in telling her off because she wont make the connection back to what she did and she wont really care. I would never yell at her or hit her and she doesn't fully understand english (even if she sometimes acts like she does) so I can't really tell her off anyway. If I give her a lecture about what she's done she just tilts her head and looks like she's listening but she looks so cute that I end up laughing so it's really not a very effective telling off :ROFLMAO: .

    I would think a dog could only really develop a "guilty look" if they get told off. I would imagine it would be a way for them to calm their angry owner down by looking "sorry" for what they have done.
    Or if a dog is very sensitive and gets upset if their owner gets upset and wants to calm the situation down.
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  3. Mutt Experienced Member

    So this saves me time, since I think the exact same thing.
    M&B also don't have a 'guily look'.
    A little example: the dogs aren't allowed on the couch (because otherwise it would wear out in notime). So when we are downstairs they aren't on the couch. However when we go to sleep or away and the dogs stay at home, we all know that Mazzel will go sleep on the couch (Boef goes into her crate since otherwise she will make holes in the wall, no joke, and we want to prevent this, in the crate she is way more relaxed). if we come downstairs early mazzel is often very near the couch (he has just jumped off). He knows that it isn't allowed, but he never has a guilty look, since we never have punished him for it (we simply have laid a nice blanket on the spot were he lies to protect the couch).
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  4. MaryK Honored Member

    I needed not write a lot either, because Holly's reactions are the same as my two dogs. Ra Kismet will looked more chuffed when he's done something he shouldn't, like jump on the dining room table, probably because he looks so cute I just cannot stifle my laughter. He never does this though when there's food on the table or we are eating, so he's not chasing food, just jumping because he can and it's fun! Zeus just looks hopeful, is there a treat involved or not, if he's caught doing the 'wrong thing'. Guilty looks just don't happen with my two boys.
  5. Dlilly Honored Member

    Every once in a while, we will come home and Shiloh will give us a 'guilty look' then run outside when we open the door. Each time she does that, we find that she has gotten into the trash. We know it is her and not Delilah getting into the trash because Delilah prefers to be outside, and Shiloh likes to stay in the house when we are gone.
    MaryK likes this.
  6. Mutt Experienced Member

    I do think this should affect the way people treat dogs. People because, I don't think there will be a lot of DTA people that will answer that they punish (have punished) their dog when they got the 'guilty look'. However there are a lot of people who underastimate the signals we humans give with our body and how quickly dogs connect two things (cause and outcome/signal and reaction human etc.).
    These can be very subtle, a few examples of my own dogs:
    - If I click on the 'home button' of our Ipad and flip the protection flap infront of the screen (which I do when I am done with it). I have 2 dogs quickly getting up and taking 3 paces in the direction of our hall (were the leashes are). Why? because when I get home from school I'll quickly open my mail before going on a walk with them. They got this after 3 times (unintentially) and even if I now do it after the walk sometimes M&B will react.

    another example
    me + leash = walk (always no exeption)
    me + telling them 'walk' = walk (always no exeption)
    my brother + telling them 'walk' = nothing (no response at all)
    my brother + leash = looking at me, no reaction from me means no walk
    me + my mother + leash = wanting to go into car
    my sister + leash = walk (but only in the evening)
    my mother + saying something in the hallway + evening = walk

    These combinations and outcomes are due to commom patterns which M&B have take notion off. If I give a signal that we are going to do something, it always means we are going to do it, because I always do it and do A LOT (everything) with the dogs.
    My brother had the tendency to say 'walk' when he had no intention of doing it (and it wasn't time to do it, so I wouldn't either), so the word means nothing if he says it.
    My mother would sometimes do the dogs in the evening and while walking to the hallway (meaning nothing since she could also just go upstairs), and in the hallway call the dogs for a walk. So the dogs soon made the connection that sound in hallway in the evening meant a walk. Every now and than me and my mom take the car to go to another area to walk the dogs, hence the connection with the car. My sister only does the dogs sometimes in the evening so also in her case 'walk' only means something in the eveing.
    These things weren't done intentionally, but were proofed (also unintentionally).

    We humans tent to be creatures of habit and dogs learn this very quickly, it is quite fun to see how they connect to things. These things also should kept in mind when training things/socialising/unteaching things etc.
    MaryK likes this.
  7. JazzyandVeronica Honored Member

    I also don't think Veronica has a "guilty look". I always assumed that when people saw a guilty look it was because their dog was picking up on their emotions, body language, facial features and figuring out that their human was displeased and that while they didn't know why it iwas somehow directed at them.

    I wonder if dogs who live with physical punishers have more "guilty looks" because the dogs associate their owners emotions, body language, facial features under certain conditions with lashing out at the dog. So then it isn't really a guilty look, it's an "Oh crap, here it comes" look.

    Topic reminded me of this video:
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  8. Anneke Honored Member

    True Veronica, what Denver displayes are called calming signals... Only it looks so darn cute and guilty...

    Though I don't directly punish my dogs for doing something naughty when I am not there, like tear up a newspaper, they still have a certain look, that tells me something is up.
    I always enter my house through the front door, that leads to a small hallway. At the end the hallway has a door on the right(kitchen) and corners to the left. The door to the livingroom and the stairs are there.
    So when I come in, I can't see anything.
    Usually the dogs will come running to greet me, jumping up, bringing toys, being happy I came home.
    BUT when Jinx tears up something(which I can't see, or I don't expect, as she hardly ever does it), she will stay at the corner and look at me. My responce then is: what did you do? And she will show me. She will walk over to the livingroom and stand by her destruction.

    In the beginning, when she was a pup, when she destroyed something and I came home to find it, I muttered a bit while cleaning up the mess she made. Saying things like: did you really think this is funny? Or, you had quite a bit of fun while I was away, didn't you?
    Ofcourse my tone of voice tells her that I am not amused, but I don't punish her directly.

    Like I said, when I come in, I can't see if something happened, so she can't tell by looking at me, if I am mad.
    Still, when she did something, she won't come and greet me in her normal way.
    Cooper used to do the same thing, when he was in his destructive fase.

    I have been breaking my head over this, because I know all about them reading even the smallest signs.

    Something my grandmother always used to tell about their dog, is that they always knew that my parents were coming, even when they didn't call ahead.
    He would go sit at the front door about half an hour before my parents would come in.
    Now I know dogs have sharp hearing, but my grandparents lived in a busy citystreet and there is just no way their dog could hear the car half an hour before it pulled up in front of the house. There was just too much noise and I really don't think a dog can hear so well, he can hear a car coming, when it's still half an hour away.
    MaryK likes this.
  9. Adrianna & Calvin Experienced Member

    The guilty look, like Anneke said, is really just calming signals -- looking away, lip licking, etc. For everyone whose dog never has the guilty look, what does your dog do if s/he sees you're in a bad mood, if you said "Not now!" or see something amiss and say "uh oh" or "seriously? now?". I think things other than scoldings can elicit 'guilt' in dogs.

    Anneke, re: your comment about Jinx looking guilty before you know something's wrong, I think it is the equivalent of the toddler, happily drawing on the wall, who then bursts into tears when Mom comes in the room. They know that walls with crayon + mom's presence = bad news, but they aren't at a developmental stage where they can use that knowledge to inhibit their behavior. So Jinx's little dog brain might say uh oh, trash on the floor and mom's home = bad mood mommy.

    BTW I hate that Denver video, I think the guy is a jerk for needling his dog that way. There's another one out there, with the dog's head stuck in the garbage can lid, and I think it's mean too. I know the meanness is unintentional but still, forcing a dog to grovel for an extended period to make a youtube video (or for any other reason) is jerk-y IMO.
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  10. JazzyandVeronica Honored Member

    //For everyone whose dog never has the guilty look, what does your dog do if s/he sees you're in a bad mood, if you said "Not now!" or see something amiss and say "uh oh" or "seriously? now?". I think things other than scoldings can elicit 'guilt' in dogs.//

    I'll have to pay more attention and notice what Veronica does when I'm in a bad mood.

    If I tell her something like enough, all done, no, uh-oh - she gets frustrated with me and huffs air through her cheeks or barks at me or lays down, turns her back to me and sulks.

    I guess she's too disgusted to want to calm me down. :p

    She will if you hold something out in front of her, like her toy with it's head torn off and say "Did you rip off Mr. Pig's head? Did you do that Veronica?"; she will give calming signals by turning her head and averting her eyes from the toy.

    I'm not crazy about the Denver video either; but I think it is a good example of a dog looking "guilty" when clearly it did not do what it is "being accused" of.
    MaryK likes this.
  11. MaryK Honored Member

    Mutt I agree with you about the signals we give that our dogs pick up. Mine are:

    Leash - Walk no exceptions (do not even think of just moving the leash).

    Putting on trainers - Walk no exceptions (I only wear trainers for walking/training the dogs)

    Flip-flops - Hoping for a walk but not sure watching for other signs

    Killer Heels - Flop down in disgust on sofa, floor, comfy chair Mom's leaving
    us behind.

    Car Keys - Look towards partner may mean a drive, disgusted flop if not taken in

    Trick Bag - Wild excitement - better do those tricks now no exceptions.

    Tote Shopping Bag - Hopeful, may get a walk here.

    "Formal Bags" - Flop down in disgust, especially if combined with killer heels. Mom's
    leaving us behind.

    Turn off light in
    lounge room - Mom's finally going to bed - head straight for bedroom to grab
    best place on the bed.

    6.a.m. No Alarm - Cannine Alarm Clock goes off - no exceptions (no sleeps ins for Mom).

    6.p.m. - Feed us NOW or you'll be pawed to death!
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  12. Mutt Experienced Member

    these are soooooo familiar :ROFLMAO:
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  13. MaryK Honored Member

    And I forgot - A Zeus only one (Ra Kismet loves bath time Zeus HATES bath time)

    Dog Shampoo bottle with dog towel - head for under the bed in the hope of avoiding a bath.
  14. threenorns Well-Known Member

    you know, i had this exact argument with someone online.

    this was my response:

    dandy's cues are often too subtle for me - i wish he'd bark at the door or paw the door or something when he wants out. instead, he just *stares* at me. if i'm preoccupied, i'll be all "yeah yeah" and then he goes and pees in the cat box. i bought a doorbell - i'm going to set it up and then he can ring it when he wants to come inside (i'm hearing impaired so i often don't hear him bark - doesn't help he's not a "barkbarkbarkbark" dog; he's a "ahem.... *clears throat*.... i say, there - bark, my good woman. bark, i say...." kinda guy.

    but when he starts whizzing around in a figure-8 in front of me, that means my blood pressure's gone over 160/110 and i need to calm down.

    something interesting: i've never made a big deal over accidents in the house - they happen, that's what paper towels are for. but if i come home and he's jigging at the door and actually whimpering and darting up and down the stairs, then i don't even have to look - i know he's gone and pooped in front of the washing machine (he's on raw food diet so it's not even a big deal - stuff sweeps up and is virtually odourless). think this could be a reaction to pooping in the house, considering the washing machine is about as far away from everything as he can get (and i think once he figures out how to get the lid off the sump pit, which is in the corner behind the washer, life will get very interesting)?
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