Buzzkill: Denver’s Not Guilty

The short story:

Dad comes home to find someone has eaten kitty treats. Denver the Dog is confronted and shows a “guilty” face since he knows he was a bad dog.

What’s actually happening:

Beginning at 0:43 Denver is showing us a set of avoidance behaviors: squinted eyes, looking away, and a fast tail wag (which would probably be tucked if he were standing). This dog is trying to avoid conflict with the human, and is doing his best to communicate this intention.

“Denver Official Guilty Dog Video”

Why does this matter?

In the short term, my heart hurts for little Denver here who is trying his best to ask for space, but for the better part of a minute his attempts are not recognized (i.e. the human doesn’t respond by stepping back to de-escalate the conflict). Worst case scenario — the dog may decide that since avoidance isn’t working, he may have to try offensive behaviors like growling and snapping.

In the long-term, if the human decides that the dog “knows what he did wrong”, he may then use punishment instead of actively teaching the dog what is the correct behavior. The human may also fail to use any management plans that prevent the behavior in the first place. This is unfair to the dog, who is set up to fail again and again.

The science says:

“… a better description of the so-called guilty look is that it is a response to owner cues, rather than that it shows an appreciation of a misdeed.”
“Thus, our findings do not support the hypothesis that dogs show the ‘guilty look’ in the absence of a concurrent negative reaction by their owners.”
“ Our findings suggest that dog presentation of [the guilty look] during greetings is not necessarily a reliable indicator whether or not a dog engaged in a misdeed.”

For a great summary of this literature, check out Julie Hecht’s piece for Dog Spies for Scientific American. (Julie is a scientist and science writer, and you can find more of her work at Do You Believe In Dog? along with colleague Mia Cobb.)