The first time I saw Denver, the Guilty Dog on YouTube, I rolled on the floor laughing. I remember watching that video like a loop, over and over again.
It was hilarious!
Everyone I knew liked Denver’s guilty reaction for eating a bag of treats.
Soon enough, a bunch of other viral videos featuring guilty dogs followed, each one better than the other.
It wasn’t until I heard in one of the videos, do you know what you did, that made me wonder something.
Do dogs really know they’re guilty? Do they really sense the guilt?
Naturally, I had to satisfy my curiosity or it would turn into a cat (and we don’t want that, right?)!
Here’s what I found out and here’s the real reason behind that hilariously adorable guilty look!
That’s Not Guilt, That’s…
The problem is that your dog doesn’t know something is classified as bad in your world. In their world, it’s pawfectly normal to chew on slippers or eat another dog’s poop. Gross, I know!
Guilt is a complex emotion. So far, scientists have figured out that dogs can sense some basic emotions such as love, fear, sadness, happiness, and anger. But, guilt is far more complex for their canine mind.
We experience guilt after doing something we’re not supposed to. We would perceive that emotion. But, it’s kind of a black or white situation with dogs (no pun intended). In most situations, they’re either happy or sad. |1|
Speaking of sadness…
Those sad puppy-dog eyes, that guilty look, and the bowed head could only mean you’re making your dog sad with your reaction.
I know it’s not super pleasant to come home to a knocked over plant, destroyed newspapers, or raided kitchen trash, but you have to control your reactions, too.
Emotional outbursts, anger, and unnecessary scolding isn’t good for either one of you. You’ll feel bad if you yell at your dog, and your dog will feel heartbroken because his favorite hooman is so mad at him.
So, there’s really no point in yelling. Your dog won’t understand it. Of course, you should never use physical punishments like hitting your dog. Not only is it not worth it, but it’s also cruel and simply out of mind.
The best thing you can do is put your dog in time out, preferably in his crate, and let him “think about it”. Of course, your dog won’t actually sit there and think about his actions, but this form of punishment has a point.
Dogs have memories and they remember all kinds of things. They will surely remember your reaction after they’ve done something. They will remember you ignoring their call to attention and cutting them off by placing them in the kennel for a while. |2|
The crate method, and limiting treats or toys should be helpful enough to teach your dog what’s good behavior and what’s not. The next time he decides to knock over the trash can, he’ll definitely stop and remind himself that that action earned him negative points.
He’ll definitely remember that you didn’t want to give him attention for a while, and that just breaks his little heart.
We tend to anthropomorphize dogs a lot. But, it would be wrong to assume they think just like we do.
Still, there’s really no harm in making those hilarious photos of pups, guilty as charged, standing right next to signs saying what they did wrong.
|1| Ljerka Ostojić, Mladenka Tkalčić, and Nicola S. Clayton. Are owners’ reports of their dogs’ ‘guilty look’ influenced by the dogs’ action and evidence of the misdeed? 2015. DOI
|2| Alexandra Horowitz. Disambiguating the “guilty look”: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour. 2009. DOI