“My dog knows what they did wrong” or “My dog always looks guilty …” All trainers hear these words from dog owners, repeated over and over, or turned into memes online as dog shaming.
What we are witnessing when dogs appear to seem guilty is our dog showing signs of appeasement or even fear. The guilty look can be triggered by so many things, or even nothing at all. It cannot, however, be caused by the emotion of guilt! Dogs do not understand the concept of “wrong” as humans do, they have no reason for feeling guilty if they eat a treat or do something they enjoy like tearing up paper.
Studies show that dogs who display the guilty look, which are signs of appeasement or fear, are responding to us and what we are doing at the time. In these studies, some dogs who showed the guilty look upon greeting their owners did so without even misbehaving in their owner’s absence. Additionally, an owner’s behavior and use of scolding and reprimands are the triggers which help predict this behavior in dogs.
So what does this mean?
If you yell at your dog, they’re going to give you the guilty look. If you yell at your dog every time you come home, they will come to predict this behavior and give you the guilty look before you start.
Why do dogs give this look?
The guilty look is a way for our dogs to prevent further harm to them. If one dog is mad at another, they use this as a way to appease the other dog and prevent a fight. If your dog is displaying the guilty look, it is because they are trying to calm your anger to prevent you from hitting them or causing other injuries. Your dog won’t understand that you are putting them in a “time out” or that you’re mad about the mess they made. All your dog will know is that you are angry about something and your anger is focused on them.
What do I do instead?
Don’t yell at your dog. They don’t understand what you are saying and it causes emotional damage to your pet. If you catch them doing something, interrupt the behavior and give them something else to do. If you come home to a mess, then it’s too late to do anything about it. Clean up the mess and move on.
Manage the environment! If you know your dog likes to chew on shoes, and you leave your shoes where your dog can get them, then it’s your fault! If you know that your puppy chews on the children’s toys, and you let the puppy roam all around the house without anyone keeping an eye on them, then it is your fault! Managing the environment can prevent so many issues before they even happen.
Make sure your dog gets exercise and mental stimulation. Many behaviors are caused by boredom or excess energy. If your dog just had a good fun sniff walk, they should be ready for a nap when you get home. A napping dog can’t destroy your house. A dog who is happily chewing on a treat can’t be ruining your shoes. Check out our trainers tips page to find some videos with options to help, like our puzzles video or our enrichment games videos.