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The Ruff Report: Dogs feel no guilt about misbehaving

Your dog has a "guilty look" on his face and you are certain your pet has misbehaved in some way, so you give him a stern warning while searching for evidence of the forbidden deed.

The Hunt of Her Life: A book about a rescue dog that will touch your heart

You check the trash barrel, look for creases on the bed spread and examine the latch on the food bin to see if your dog has gotten into some of those off-limits places, but you find no wrongdoing.

So why does your dog have that guilty look even though he is innocent? He is simply displaying body language in reaction to the harsh tone or body language you are using because a study has found dogs are incapable of feeling remorse even when they actually do misbehave.

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People who believe dogs can display "guilty looks" are transposing their human perceptions onto their pets, according to the study, published in Behavioural Processes and done by Alexandra Horowitz, an assistant professor at Barnard College in New York.

“This is a remarkably powerful demonstration,” Clive D.L. Wynne, editor of the special issue of Behavioural Processes that published the study's results and a psychology professor at the University of Florida, states in a media release. The study shows more research is needed to help understand the human-dog relationship and to dispel human prejudices about animal behavior, he said.

In the study, Horowitz was able to show that people see "guilt" in a dog’s body language when they believe the dog had misbehaved - even if the dog is innocent of any offense.

During the study, owners were asked to leave the room after ordering their dogs not to eat a tasty treat. While the owner was away, Horowitz gave some dogs the forbidden treat before asking the owners to return to the room.

Some owners were told that their dog had eaten the forbidden treat; others were told their dog had behaved properly and left the treat alone. What the owners were told, however, often did not correlate with reality.

Whether a dog had a "guilty look" had little to do with whether he had actually eaten the forbidden treat. Dogs who looked “guilty” were the ones admonished by their owners for eating the treat, whether they did so or not. Even dogs that had been obedient and had not eaten the treat, but were scolded by their (misinformed) owners, looked “guilty.” If some cases, they looked more "guilty" than those that had actually eaten the treat.

Thus a dog’s guilty look was a response to the owner’s behavior rather than being indicative of any understanding of its own misdeeds, the study concludes.


The Ruff Report is a column that appears on, a blog written by Joseph A. Reppucci, a retired editor from The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Massachusetts. Mr. Reppucci worked as a reporter and editor on major daily newspapers in the Boston area for more than 30 years. He is the author of the book, The Hunt of Her Life, a heartwarming story about his once-in-a-lifetime rescue dog. Find it on


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