That 'guilty' look that your dog is giving you isn't actually guilt — it's fear

Every dog owner knows the telltale look of a dog who did something it wasn't supposed to do.

Maybe she pooped on the floor. Maybe she chewed through your favorite couch cushion, or the carpet on the stairs.

You know she did something she shouldn't have done and, seemingly, she does too. Since you're a human being, you see that look and ascribe a common human emotion to it: guilt.

All the logic lines up: Your dog was left alone, did something they weren't supposed to do (that they know better than to do), and when they're called on it, their face says it all. Perhaps you're already saying "No! Bad dog! Bad dog!" or some variation thereof.

The truth is, despite your logical summation, the dog isn't feeling guilt. Instead, they're expressing a much more common, less complex emotion: fear

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25 of the smartest dog breeds

BORDER COLLIE

According to Coren, these dogs are able to learn a new command in under five seconds and follow it at least 95 percent of the time.

POODLE

Second place on Coren’s list of smartest pups, these beauties are also great family dogs and hypoallergenic.

GERMAN SHEPHERD

There’s a reason why these guys make great crime-fighting pals—they’re obedient and alert (and handsome, too).

GOLDEN RETRIEVER

The ultimate family-friendly dog, these pooches are loyal, whip smart and very patient.

DOBERMAN PINSCHER

Playful and fun-loving, this breed is easy to train and fiercely loyal.

SHETLAND SHEEPDOG

Hey, only a highly intelligent breed would be able to raise a pig. (If you don’t get this Babereference, please go rent the movie immediately.)

LABRADOR RETRIEVER

The most popular dog breed in America is also one of the smartest. Great with families, these guys are loving and loyal.

PAPILLON

Named after the French word for “butterfly” (just look at those sweet, pointed ears), this toy breed is intelligent, energetic and friendly.

ROTTWEILER

Fans of children’s book Good Dog, Carl won’t be surprised to discover that rotties are fearless, devoted and confident. (And also very obedient, according to Coren.)

AUSTRALIAN CATTLE DOG

No wonder these canines are such excellent work dogs. But even without cows to herd, this breed makes great companions thanks to their obedience, loyalty and protective nature.

PEMBROKE WELSH CORGI

We wouldn’t expect anything less from Her Majesty’s favorite breed.

MINIATURE SCHNAUZER

Full of energy, these friendly pups are fast learners and sociable (and they have the best mustaches).

ENGLISH SPRINGER SPANIEL

Affectionate, athletic and attentive, these tail-waggers were bred as hunting dogs.

BELGIAN TERVUREN

Ideal watchdogs, these pooches are highly trainable and have boundless energy.

SCHIPPERKE

From the Belgian region of Flanders, this breed is curious, confident and clever. (Although these small pups definitely think they’re bigger than they are.)

BELGIAN SHEEPDOG

Those Belgians really know a thing or two about smart pooches, don’t they?

COLLIE

Well, duh—have you never seen Lassie before?

KEESHOND

Outgoing and playful, this sturdy breed is known for the markings around their eyes that looks like glasses.

GERMAN SHORTHAIRED POINTER

Cooperative and trainable, these pups are popular hunting dogs so they need plenty of exercise.

FLAT-COATED RETRIEVER

Great with kids, this friendly breed is also a popular therapy dog.

ENGLISH COCKER SPANIEL

With their soft and luxurious coat, these guys love being friendly with kids, adults and even other pups. 

STANDARD SCHNAUZER

Devoted, loving and playful, these guys are also hypoallergenic.

BRITTANY

Known as sensitive souls who are very clever and attentive.

COCKER SPANIEL

Thanks to a certain fictional female dog, the cocker spaniel has a lot to live up to.

NOVA SCOTIA DUCK TOLLING RETRIEVER

If you’re looking for a dog that loves to play fetch, then look no further than this smarty-pants.

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Don't just take my word for it: That assertion is based on a 2009 study conducted by dog cognition scientist Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, author of 2009's "Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know" and 2016's "Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell." 

Dr. Horowitz's 2009 study, "Disambiguating the 'guilty look': salient prompts to a familiar dog behavior," specifically focuses on the concept of how humans interpret dog emotions through the scope of human emotion. More simply: Humans tend to misattribute dog emotions based on human emotions. The "guilty" look is a prime example of this.

"I look at a dog showing the guilty look and it feels guilty to me. It does! We're kind of wired to see it this way, so it's nobody's fault," Dr. Horowitz told Business Insider.  

The look is distinct: The dog cowers, showing the whites of its eyes while looking up at you. Maybe it pins its ears back to its head, yawns, or licks the air. These are all characteristic signs of fear in a dog — signs that us humans tend to misattribute as guilt.

Horowitz's 2009 study is a clear demonstration of how humans tend to anthropomorphize their dogs. Here's how the study went, and what it revealed, based on the abstract:

  • "Trials varied the opportunity for dogs to disobey an owner's command to not eat a desirable treat while the owner was out of the room, and varied the owners' knowledge of what their dogs did in their absence."
  • "The results revealed no difference in behaviors associated with the guilty look. By contrast, more such behaviors were seen in trials when owners scolded their dogs. The effect of scolding was more pronounced when the dogs were obedient, not disobedient."
  • "These results indicate that 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."

To put that a bit more succinctly, the study found that dogs demonstrating a "guilty" look were actually demonstrating fear of scolding ("owner cues") rather than guilt ("an appreciation of a misdeed"). 

So, do dogs experience guilt? Maybe, maybe not.

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"It seems unlikely that they have the same types of thinking about thinking that we do, because of their really different brains, but in most ways dogs brains are more similar to ours than dissimilar," Dr. Horowitz said.

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.

"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."

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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."

Lacking the scientific studies to explain how dogs experience emotion and memory, we instead turn to our own anthropomorphisms.

"When you adopted your dog, and suddenly you're living with a dog, within a week we have opinions about the dog's personality, what they're like and what they're thinking. It's a way to try to predict what's gonna happen next with an organism that we don't really know," Horowitz said. "So we use the language of human explanation, and we just put it on the dog."

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