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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Guilty As Charged?

I think we all know the situation.  We come into a room and there is a mess on the floor.  Maybe a poo or pee accident, or maybe the dog got into the garbage.  As we look over the mess the dog slinks away or holds their head down.  Maybe we ask "did you do this?" and the dog looks away.  It's pretty obvious that the dog knows what they did wrong and that they are feeling guilty about it.

Or do they?

It's pretty easy to find videos online of "guilty" dogs.  Check out a couple of these...

It seems pretty clear that these dogs recognize their bad deeds and feel some degree of guilty.  However, studies have shown that this isn't the case, and we are attributing too many human emotions to our pets.

A dog has little to no long-term association between their behaviors and either punishment or reward.  Behavioral studies have shown that a positive or negative reinforcement must happen within 20 seconds or a dog doesn't associate it with whatever action they performed.  For example, say that you let your dog out to go to the bathroom, they potty and then wander around the yard for a minute or so.  They come back to the door and you praise them for being such a good dog and going potty.  However, it's been too long for the dog to link the bathroom behavior and the praise, so they believe that they are being rewarded for coming to the door (the most recent behavior prior to the reward). Similarly, if you come home and find a mess, the dog only reacts to the mess on the floor, not to the fact that they created it.

It's a subtle but important difference.  There was a study that looked at dogs in homes.  When the dog was out of the room a person turned over a trashcan just like a dog might have done, and then the dog was let back into the room.  When the dog saw the mess, it acted "guilty".  So why did it do so?

Think about the time period for reward or punishment.  If you come home and find a mess, you are likely to get upset.  Even if you don't spank or hit the dog (which you should never do), or yell at the dog, your pet can recognize the tension and anger in your body language.  When a pack leader shows signs of anger or aggression it's a typical dog reaction to start showing submissive behavior:  lowered head and tail, keeping the body low to the ground, avoiding eye contact, and so on.  Though we interpret these behaviors as "guilt", it's really signs of submission.  The dog is making a connection between a mess on the floor and your angry behavior.  They are NOT making a connection between their behavior and your anger.  When you come home their action was far enough in the past (more than 20-30 seconds) that they don't associate it with any of your actions.  In a dog's mind it goes like this:  "Mess is on the floor.  My person gets upset when there is a mess on the floor, and I have experiences in the past that show this is consistent.  When there is a mess on the floor and my person is in the room, I know they are going to be upset.  When these conditions happen together, I need to act submissive to help defer any anger from me."

So dogs really don't feel "guilty".  This is another example of how people and pets often speak in different "languages".  The dog is trying to communicate in the only "language" that they know, and are expecting us to understand.  We, however, misinterpret the language in our own, sometimes coming to the wrong conclusions.


  1. So, theoretically, a dog will "act guilty" even if they didn't create the mess on the floor.

    What would happen if you rigged up a mess to happen at some point when you were not home? Would the dog, seeing the mess, then act guilty about it?

  2. wow, that was pretty informative. I didn't know. I'm planning to get my first dog ever (very soon), and I'm sure I'll be checking this blog more often :) whether the dog feels guilty or not, they sure look cute though :)

  3. My Scamp looks terribly guilty when I walk into a room with accident cleaning equipment. The last couple of times it happened, I was in the room, with my 3 dogs, and the boarder who got a bit confused and wet on the floor. Scamp was fine when it happened, and fine with the wee on the floor. It was the cleaning stuff that set him off cringing. I guess his first family must have told him off! Despite them telling me they never did... (I dog walked him for 18 months before they gave him up for rehoming).

  4. I am the proud owner of five furry critters. I have taken them all to vets san antonio
    . In sickness and in health they have provided the best care to them possible.

  5. interesting. I had never heard it put that way before.

    I have been told about the 20 second rule and I have learned enough to know not to attribute emotions to the dog because i am usually wrong....but it does creep into my thoughts. oh he is acting hurt ( if I scold the dog) or she is acting guilty if I catch her at the garbage...
    It is good to know they are reading my body language and not really responding to a feeling of doing something wrong.

    Now if only I could learn not to spoil my babies!

    great article.

  6. In dog training the association time is generally 2 seconds, not 20. Also if the dog has done ANYTHING else between your praise and what you're praising for, he'll associate it with the wrong thing.

  7. Because this topic is on what we think is guilt and how easy it is to put human emotions on our pets here is a video link I found.

    It shows a dog that seems to be protecting another injured dog in the wake of a Japanese tsunami.

    Even though I know not to atribute my emotions to how a pet feels it is hard for me to watch this and not put my own spin on this.

    Instinct, love ? I have no idea but it is touching to see.

  8. Just one more reason it is so important for those who want to take on the responsibility of any animal to educate themselves on animal behaviors and what they mean! I have learned a lot by reading Tamar Geller's book on "The Loved Dog" and it's helping me tremendously in training my foster dog in a positive, fun way that doesn't involve any harsh, violent methods of "training".


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