Why Does My Dog... Look Guilty?

Why Dogs Act Guilty

Dogs are keen observers of human behavior and have been shown to interpret human gestures, like pointing, even better than primates. When a human appears upset, a dog will often respond with appeasement gestures designed to decrease the anger and defray any possible aggression. This behavior can include attempts to look smaller and nonthreatening, like cowering, lowering the head or looking down.

These appeasement gestures are most likely to appear when a dog is being scolded. But some dogs learn to connect specific situations, like a potty accident or shredded paper, with the angry or upset demeanor of an owner. When this happens, a dog may display appeasement gestures — or what we call the guilty look — to defer a scolding or spanking.

Believing that a dog is guilty because of the way he acts can have detrimental effects on both dog and owner. It creates the expectation that a canine can rationalize, moralize and control himself in a way a human would be expected to in a similar situation. When a dog fails to live up to an owner’s standard, the owner may feel justified in getting upset with the dog for lack of compliance. But labeling a dog as guilty puts the blame on the dog, who should “know better,” and downplays the owner’s responsibility for the dog’s behavior.

As a trainer, I teach my clients to let go of the idea that their dogs feel guilt and instead recognize that they are feeling unsafe and threatened in the moment. Eradicate the guilty look by teaching your dog what behavior is acceptable, rewarding desired behavior and managing your pooch’s environment to prevent temptation. Your dog’s behavior will improve —and so will his relationship with you.

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