When is your dog guilty?

The Guilt Myth

The guilt myth says that the dog “looks guilty” in situations in which the owner is upset with him. This is often accompanied by the assertion “He knows he’s done something wrong.” Of course it’s true a dog might look as if he knows he has committed a crime. Dogs do offer changes in their postures and eyes that look a lot like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. In some dogs, these body postures are consistent with submissive signals or attempts to convey the message “I’m backing down, I’m no challenge; I’m no threat.” But this isn’t guilt; it’s a response to you approaching angrily and demanding, “What have you done?” The dog sees you behaving aggressively and offers an appropriate submissive response. Other dogs would interpret this signal as a white flag of surrender and would stop any threatening behavior. But because we offer some of the same signals when we’re feeling guilty, and because we’ve all been guilty of something, we assume the dog is feeling exactly what we would feel. So we keep scolding the dog: “Why did you do this when you knew it was wrong?” This puts the dog in a terrible situation: He’s doing his very best to convey to the human that he is surrendering, but the human is getting a different message. The dog is showing canine body language that means “I surrender.” But that same body language, among humans, means “I’m guilty.” We’re seeing it and jumping to the human conclusion. This breakdown in communication can ruin a relationship.

The Guilt Factor

Jeff and Diane were terribly frustrated with their dog, Archer, when they arrived for their appointment at the behavior clinic. Archer was urinating and defecating in the house once or twice a week when they were away at work. When they got home, Jeff and Diane always knew if the dog had an accident even before seeing the stain. That’s because instead of coming to the door to greet them, Archer would be hiding under the coffee table, crouched down with wide eyes. If there was no accident, he would greet them at the door exuberantly. They believed Archer knew that he had done something wrong. They felt he was defying them and being spiteful. And, since Archer clearly was exhibiting “guilt” by hiding under the coffee table, they believed he knew why they were angry. So they felt they had to punish him. They would find the urine or feces, drag him over to it, shove his nose near it, and tell him no in a stern voice. But this reprimand wasn’t working; he still eliminated in the house. The reprimand wasn’t working, in part, because of the timing. To be effective, punishment has to occur immediately after the behavior in question—within one to two seconds. Archer was soiling the house while Jeff and Diane were at work, probably hours before they stuck his nose in it. Archer’s problem was a lapse in housetraining. The treatment plan for this included not using punishment at all if urine or feces was discovered, regardless of how “guilty” Archer looked. Jeff and Diane learned that Archer was actually showing submissive behaviors to defuse their tension and soften the impending punishment. Archer was smart: he’d figured out that if three factors occurred at the same time—owners present, urine or feces on the carpet, Archer present—he was likely to get punished. So he tried to avoid that punishment by taking on submissive body postures. What he hadn’t figured out was the connection between him soiling the house hours earlier and the anger of his owners. They had not clearly communicated to him that the action of soiling in the house was undesirable. It’s easy for us to see the link because we explain it using words: “I’m angry at you because you defecated on the rug while I was away.” But because we can’t explain things that way to our dogs, our reactions to their behaviors must be immediate to be understood. Jeff and Diane followed the instructions, but they were skeptical. As they worked on the re-housetraining, Archer stopped soiling in the house and everyone was happy. But the real understanding came two years later. They got a puppy, and the first time the puppy soiled in the house when they were at work, guess who was under the coffee table when they returned home? Archer. In his mind, the perfect storm had come again—owners present, feces on the carpet, Archer present. The size of the poop made it clear it was puppy poop, so Archer couldn’t have committed the crime. Jeff and Diane finally understood that Archer wasn’t showing guilt, he was trying to avoid punishment. It also taught them the critical lesson that punishment is very difficult to properly implement and that positive reinforcement for good behavior is much more successful.

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