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Dogs with a guilty look and bad behaviour

Dogs with a guilty look and bad behaviour

When studying the behaviour of animals, we should always apply what is known as the “"Law of Parsimony"”. According to this law, if there are two or more explanations for a single event, we should always choose the simplest one. Believing that dogs hide because they feel guilty is like recognising that they have complex emotions, such as guilt, jealousy or pride, and a moral code that allows them to distinguish between right and wrong. However, dogs’ reactions in certain situations may have a much more simple explanation.

When dogs feel threatened, they can show behaviours related to fear and submissiveness. For instance, when owners find the typical puddle of urine on the floor, dogs may sense annoyance through the furrowed brow, tense muscles and deep tone of voice of their owners. These are typical human signs of threat to which dogs response with typical animal fear or submissive signs.

Fear and guilt are different things. Fear is a basic and common emotion shown by animals when they perceive danger; however, guilt is a complex emotion that arises when individuals break rules. According to recent research, dogs' guilty looks that owners perceive as “an admission of guilt” are just an instinctive or learnt response to threatening behaviour, which has nothing to do with showing respect for the rules.

Coming back to the previously described situation, some owners may tell you that their dog hides before they detect the puddle of urine, that is to say, before they show their annoyance. In this case, this dog is not directly responding to the signs of annoyance of its owner, it is anticipating them. In the past, this dog might have experienced threats and punishments in similar situations. This way, when the dog recognises the situation (“its owner comes home” and “finds a puddle of dog urine”), it already knows that something unpleasant is about to happen, so it gets scared and hides. In fact, in houses where there is more than one dog, if all of them had been punished in the past for urinating indoors, “not only the guilty dog” but the rest of them will show signs of fear, knowing intuitively that punishment will be served.

So far, it has not yet been proven that dogs actually have a sense of guilt. For some owners, the “"admission of guilt"” of their dog entitles them to use punishment because it entails the fact that the animal has broken the rules voluntarily; therefore, it is essential that owners understand the difference between fear and guilt and come to understand that behind “their dog's guilty look” there is a scared animal responding to a social threat.