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Unleashed: Guilty as charged!

We have to credit dogs for their remarkable ability to communicate an incredible range of emotions through expressive facial patterns, and interpretative body language. The problem is, we’re human and some – actually, most – of the time, we get the interpretation bit wrong. And it will come as no great surprise that it’s our misinterpretation of these signals and emotions which is what causes problems.

By Russell D Russell

Sunday 11 October 2020, 11:00AM

A sad face can often be misinterpreted. Photo: Toshi / Unsplash

A sad face can often be misinterpreted. Photo: Toshi / Unsplash

And for me, the most common example of this, is the concept of “Guilt”. I hear it all the time, “…but he KNOWS he’s guilty!” You’ve walked into the house and noticed that she’s peed on the floor (again!), or he’s chewed your MacBook charger – and when you look at the dog, their body seems to melt under the weight of self imposed guilt. 

However, that ‘guilt’ you’re seeing is down to what we call ‘anthropomorphism’, which is basically attributing human characteristics and/or behaviours to another animal (it’s also the longest word in my vocabulary). Scientific studies have shown this very clearly, where dogs and owners were placed in settings, with the dogs ‘misbehaving’. The dogs that tended to display ‘guilty’ behaviour were the ones that were being scolded by their owners. This happened far more frequently than with owners who remained neutral.

Okay, I hear you, you still don’t believe me. So let’s look at what we’re seeing. Invariably, that ‘guilty’ look is comprised of:

  • Tail tucked under their belly
  • Visible whites of the eyes, whilst they partially look away
  • Cowering posture
  • Yawning
  • Licking
  • Flattened ears
  • Possibly even urination

But in actual fact these are expressions of fear, anxiety and stress in the dog, not the complex emotion of guilt that we are seeing. The inherent complexity of the emotion itself is something that requires a clear understanding of cause and effect over time. 

And here’s the other kicker, the real truth is that we’ve no idea what dogs think about in the time between chewing your favourite shoes to pieces and you coming home to find them. But we do know that dogs experience fear and stress – as these are biological responses that we can measure and assess. So it’s far more likely that your dogs ‘guilty’ behaviours are actually more of an attempt to appease your apparent displeasure rather than an apology for past indiscretions. 

K9 Point

The key element here is our influence. Ninety-nine times out of 100 you come home, you’re ‘happy to see the dog’, he gets a cuddle and we walk into the house – all is normal. However, on that one time you walk into the house and witness hitherto unseen carnage, your body language will change massively – and not in a good way. 

Dogs are masters at reading body language and will sense this big change, but are clueless as to the why, but our demeanour suggests something is afoot. All the shouting, pointing, raised voices and heightened levels of stress are ‘out of the ordinary’ and clearly communicate your displeasure. Ergo, the dog’s response is often an effort to appease you and inform you that ‘I don’t know what the issue is, I’m sorry, it’s nothing to do with me!’

One of the bigger issues with this is that whilst it can be quite amusing to poke fun at the ‘guilty’ dog, it actually can be a very serious issue. And if you’re misreading signals from your dog, or worse, doing things such as rubbing your dog’s nose in the mess he’s made – then you’re going to make things much much worse. Applying any sort of punishment after the fact has no impact, other than increasing the dog’s stress and anxiety, because he has no way of knowing why this is happening.

Your best bet to avoiding such drama is working with your dog to prevent these situations from happening in the first place. And that, amongst other things, is something we can certainly help with.

For more information on canine training or behavioural issues, call 091-6541960, email info@k9pointacademy.com or check visit www.k9pointacademy.com. Canine Point Acedemy is accredited with the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) and as an American Kennel Club (AKC) Evaluator.

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