Guilty or not guilty: what dogs understand


By guest blogger, Rosee Riggs

When I come home and find the contents of the rubbish bin spread around the floor, does my dog have a guilty conscience?

No, he doesn’t!

A dog does not conceive of behavior as a ‘deed’, let alone a ‘bad deed’. Let me explain by sharing a few quotations on this subject from scientist Alexandra Horowitz’ book, Inside of a Dog: How Dogs see, smell and understand.

“….the dog has associated the owner, not the act, with an imminent reprimand. What’s happening here? The dog is anticipating punishment around certain objects or when seeing the subtle cues from the owner that indicate he may be angry.”

I don't understand the word "guilty."
I don’t understand the word “guilty.”
 “The guilty look is very similar to the look of fear and to submissive behaviors. It is no surprise, then, to find so many dog owners frustrated with attempts to punish a dog for bad behavior. What the dog clearly knows is to anticipate punishment when the owner appears wearing a look of displeasure. What the dog does not know is that he is guilty. He just knows to look out for you.”


Can you read each dogs’ body language?

What will happen next?
Oh, my. Photo Credit: Katrin Bargheer

The white dog, then seven months old, seems to be enjoying taking the pillow apart. While the older, more experienced Collie, shows discomfort at the excitement when the owner entered the room. Ears slightly back, head low and turned away from the owner, body turned at a T to the other dog. The Collie’s gaze is slightly shortened.

That’s a LOT of body language and many people would say he looks guilty. However, he didn’t take the cushion apart; that was the puppy in the foreground, who is busy and perfectly oblivious.

Isn’t that sad?

The dog suffers confusion and may receive unkind treatment, perhaps even painful punishment for something he is not able to understand. This causes psychological stress and damages his trust in the owner.

The slow ‘slinking’ away and the ‘shifty’ turn of the head are not signs of guilt or deceit, as they might be in a human with a guilty conscience. The dog is not in fact slinking or being shifty. This Collie dog feels intimidated and is trying to calm the owner. The slowing of body movements and turning away the gaze, are in dog language appeasement signals.

Punishment is not only unethical, it will never help a dog to understand how we wish him to behave. Don’t tell the dog what not to do, but instead offer him an alternative. Then he can understand how we want him to behave.

The lesson for us who love our dogs?

– We can help our dogs lead happier lives if we learn to understand their body language.

– We can only treat them fairly if we learn to understand what they can comprehend.

– When we react appropriately to dogs’ body language, they will start to tell us whether they feel comfortable in a situation or perhaps totally overwhelmed.  That is the beginning of a wonderful relationship based on two-way communication.

-When we react to our dogs’ communication and support them, we gain their trust.

– We should also resolve not to (mis-) interpret dogs’ behavior too quickly. Some of their body language may mean something else in their culture than in ours.

Watch Alexandra Horowitz talk about her book.

For more on this topic: Try an excellent book by Rosie Lowry Understanding the Silent Communication of Dogs  documents the subtle body language of dogs.

Visit Rosee Riggs Good Dog Practice.  Share these unique insights with other dog lovers.

Visit Good Dog Practice
Rosee Riggs

Rosee Riggs, team member of a small organization called Friendship for Dogs, based in Germany and Austria. It exists to educate people about the needs of dogs. Through her rescued greyhound,  many people visit her Facebook Good Dog Practice page from Ireland. In  that country many dog lovers rescue privately, because the situation for animals in Ireland is, frankly, dire. Plus, there are the thousands of greyhounds dumped annually as collateral damage of the racing industry.

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