Science Daily has an interesting look at recent research into why dog’s look guilty from time to time.
From Science Daily:
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.
They tested it by placing a dog treat in a room with a dog and the owner. The owner then left the room for several minutes. When the owner returned to the room they were told that the dog had or had not eaten the treat in their absence. Again from Science Daily:
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.
My take on that is that confusion was mistaken for guilt. Again from Science Daily:
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.
Part of the problem is that dogs were social animals to begin with, and have been bred for thousands of years for their ability to read humans (among other things), the reverse, however, is not the case. Consequently, we are left interpreting our dog’s behavior in terms of that which we are most familiar with – ourselves. We expect to see guilt when “bad” behavior occurs so no matter what the dog does it is interpreted in those terms – especially after we scold them.
There is one variable not considered in the above study: