"Guilty" dogs

How good are you at guessing when your dog was misbehaving? Research sheds light on the so-called “guilty look.”

It’s so precious, in a naughty way. You suspect that your dog (or even your cat) has been chewing on something he shouldn’t. Or maybe you heard something in the next room and think some four-footed friend is up to no good. Then, when you reach him, he gives you that big-eyed “oh-no-she-caught-me-and-I’m-so-very-sorry” look. Is he really looking “guilty”?

We hate to disillusion you, but as smart as your pet is, it’s likely that look isn’t really an admission of guilt, researchers say.

During a clever research study, owners ordered their pets not to eat a tempting treat. When the owners left the room, a researcher gave some pets the treat and kept the treat from others. The next part is the most interesting: When owners returned, the researcher “reported” on their dogs’ behavior. When researchers told the owner (incorrectly) that their pet ate the treat, owners said their pet looked guilty. And to owners who actually scolded their pets for eating the treat (even though they didn’t), their pets looked the “most guilty of all,” researchers said.

The conclusion: Your dog's “guilty look” is most likely his reaction to you! The “look” happens because of how we as owners react—regardless of whether a dog has been behaving badly or acting like a perfect angel.

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