All of us who live with dogs have experienced that guilty look on their dog when he or she has done something wrong or thinks she has and has been caught doing something wrong. But is that look really guilt?

In a study done at Barnard College in New York in which dog owners were misinformed about the behavior of their dog - for instance, whether they ate or declined to eat a treat they had been told not to eat, researchers showed that the human tendency to attribute a guilty look to a dog was not due to whether the dog was actually guilty. It turned out that people see guilt in a dog’s body language when they believe the dog has done something he or she shouldn’t have, even if the dog has done nothing wrong.

In this study, 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 who had eaten the treat. The dogs’ guilty looks were a response to the owner’s behavior,and did not necessarily indicate the dogs’ belief that he or she had done something wrong..

This study cautions us to be careful in interpreting animal behavior in human terms without clear evidence that our observations are accurate and true. The mind of a dog is a mysterious thing of which we know only a little.

For the complete Science Daily article, go here.

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