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Time to reach for the rolled up newspaper:

Anthropomorphisms are regularly used by owners in describing their dogs. Of interest is whether attributions of understanding and emotions to dogs are sound, or are unwarranted applications of human psychological terms to non-humans. One attribution commonly made to dogs is that the “guilty look” shows that dogs feel guilt at doing a disallowed action. In the current study, this anthropomorphism is empirically tested. The behaviours of 14 domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) were videotaped over a series of trials and analyzed for elements that correspond to an owner-identified “guilty look.” Trials varied the opportunity for dogs to disobey an owner’s command not to 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 behaviours associated with the guilty look. By contrast, more such behaviours 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.

That this demonstrates dogs have no sense of guilt is nonsense, and I’ll tell you why:  While there might be a correlation between the guilty look and owner cues in this study, it doesn’t explain away the appearance of the guilty look before the owner provides such cues.  How many times over the years have I rounded a corner, for instance, and taken my cue from the look already on a certain someone’s face showing that he knows he’s been a very naughty Scottie?

Cats, on the other hand, of course merely stare at you as if to say, “Prove it.”


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June 2009