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Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Author: Nicole Stewart | Date: October 30, 2012

I always open up my Bowser and the Baby seminar with a slide that is entitled, “Guilt” and has a picture like this:

 I don’t know what caption you might put on this, but if I was to offer up one, it would be, “Who me?”

This dog, Tank, really is going to have a hard time hiding his bad behavior, but the look doesn’t help.  This is one of my favorites!

The problem is that dogs don’t have or experience guilt.  It’s a human thing.


However, since body language is how they communicate, it’s easy to misinterpret.

I know what your saying… “Oh, my dog gets guilty!  Look at this picture…”   and, by the way, I’d love to see it.  Even my dog, he has a look that seems undeniable.

If it weren’t for the darn scientists that did a study on this that debunks our whole interpretation…

See, scientists put a dog in a room, dumped over the garbage and then had the owners go in 10 minutes later.  When the owners entered, the dog did the same “guilty look” (ears back, hunkered down, tails between the legs or some combination of these) as if they had done the dumping!

So, we now understand that a dog can associate dumped garbage and person in the room as very bad for them.  They can also associate the voice “were you a bad dog?” with bad for them.  What they have also figured out is that if they position their body in a certain way as mentioned above, it seems to calm us down.

Think about it, when you walk into a mess that your dog has done, doesn’t it make you feel a little better that they do those body positions because it makes you feel like they knew they were wrong?  This means that we take the heat off and it has worked many times.  In fact, they’ve probably honed the look over many repetitions to find the one that diffuses the situation the quickest.

Seems they are training us as well, and isn’t that what a relationship is?  A two-way street?


So, the take-away?  Unless you catch your dog in the act of dumping the garbage, chewing the chair leg, or peeing in your living room, let it be.  You can’t be effective for the next time they have the inkling.  Instead, if you walk into the room to find a dog like Tank and his mess from who knows how long ago, lighten up, take a video, and next time, take precautions by giving that big lug less freedom and something fun to chew on like a stuffed Kong!

Oh, yeah, post those “guilty” pics on AnimalSense’s Facebook page!  That way we can all get a good giggle.


    1. […] Basically, it amounts to treating something that is NOT human as if it were human, or assigning it human traits, such as a personality.  For a lot of people who own or work with dogs, it creates an issue because it blurs the line between actual canine communication and behavior, and what we perceive our dogs to be able to know or do.  My favorite example of this is the “guilty” look.  Dogs cannot feel guilty – they just don’t have the ability to mentally process something so complex. But when we get home, see the garbage can knocked over, and then see our dog hiding under the dining room table, with that pathetic look on his face, it’s hard not to say “he feels guilty!”  In reality, the dog makes an association between the dumped garbage, and you coming in the door, as something bad happening for them.  (For more on this, see my colleague Nicole’s blog post, “Innocent Until Proven Guilty”). […]

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