Any dog owner knows what the “guilty look” is. This is probably because, when you have a mischievous pet, you end up seeing the guilty look multiple times a day. I know I have. That’s because I’m the proud human that has to clean up after my Schnauzer Mac’s multiple messes 24/7, and it’s because of that same sheepish look that the loveable rogue gets away with his various misdeeds every time.
I know he employs it as a get-out-of-jail-free card, but I just can’t help myself. When I see it my heart melts like a blob of ice cream on a hot skillet.
It doesn’t matter what the crime of the day is, sooner or later he’ll use the look to wriggle out of serious punishment. Maybe he’s scratched at the sofa, maybe he’s barking at a woman with a pram, maybe he wants a third dinner and won’t leave me alone until he gets it – the specifics don’t matter. All that matters is that the dog escapes a stern reprimand.
But do our misbehaving mutts really know what they’re doing? Is the guilty look really a cunning tactic? Or is it simply an involuntary reaction? Are we simply anthropomorphising our canines, projecting our own feelings onto them, when in actual fact they couldn’t give a stuff whether they’ve been good or bad? Well, the real answer might just surprise you. A group of egghead animal behaviourists have managed to determine what the sad puppy dog pout really means.
Australian researcher Alexandra Horowitz conducted a study entitled What Really Prompts The Dog’s Guilty Look, published in Science Daily, which aimed to examine how dogs use this submissive expression escape punishment and communicate with their dominant owner.
Horowitz carefully set up conditions where dog owners were consciously misinformed as to whether their dogs had really done something wrong. In the experiment, owners had to instruct their pet to not eat a treat.
They then left the room for a short time, and when they came back, they were told by researchers whether or not the dog ate it. Horowitz discovered that if the poor pup in question was scolded, it would give its owner the guilty look even if it hadn’t eaten the treat.
This seems to suggest that these submissive gestures are simply a response to stress and anger. They’re not looking for forgiveness, they’re trying to avoid a confrontation with the alpha dog, AKA you, the dog’s owner.
Horowitz stated: “It seems unlikely that they have the same types of thinking about thinking that we do, because of their really different brains. That first bit is especially important – the concept of ‘thinking about thinking,’ sometimes known as ‘executive function’ – because it means dogs aren’t likely to reflect on their past actions and decide they’ve done something wrong.”
She added: “There is some work showing that some animals are planning for the future and remember specific episodes in the past,” Horowitz said. “With dogs, there’s not as much evidence yet. Which isn’t to say that they don’t, but it’s to say that it’s really hard to design experiments around it.”
“Dogs have memories, of course, but thinking about those memories in the same way human memories work is likely wrong. They’re not remembering it in language,” Horowitz said. “They don’t talk about it. Do they think about it, when they’re lying on the couch waiting for you to get home? We don’t know. We would love to know that, but we don’t know.”
A forgiven dog will also show its appreciation by licking its owner’s face, but there’s a very good reason why you should never let it.