What it Means When a Dog Has “That Guilty Look”

September 10, 2014

guilty iconoclast resizedBy Langley Cornwell

Most people who share their lives with dogs know what I mean when I say “that guilty look.” It’s the look your pet takes on when you come home to a tipped over kitchen garbage can, with the inedible remains of last night’s dinner scattered all over the floor.

When you arrive, your dog will likely greet you at the door with his head hanging low, his ears pinned back, and his eyes wide open, looking up at you. His tail may be low and wagging slowly or tucked under his behind. He may even be crouching slightly. This posture is different from his usual enthusiastic, jovial greeting that involves slobbery kisses from him and CANIDAE Pure Heaven Biscuits from you. You know, just by looking at your dog, that he feels guilty for digging through the trash, even though you know you should have wrapped up those chicken bones before throwing them into the garbage can.

Well, here’s a news flash: “that guilty look” is not what you think it is. In fact, your dog does not know he’s done anything wrong, especially if you didn’t catch him in the act, so as far as he’s concerned he doesn’t have anything to feel guilty about. And it’s time to clear up another common assumption people mistakenly make about dog behavior: dogs never do anything bad to “get back” at their owner. Your dog did not dig through the garbage because he was mad at you for leaving him at home.

One of the multitudes of things that make dogs so wonderful is that they do not understand human emotions like guilt and spite. Those negative characteristics have no place in a canine’s repertoire. When you understand and fully comprehend the fact that your dog will never behave out of guilt or spite, you will be able to deal with such situations with more compassion and grace.

guilty  Stacey Cavanagh resizedHere’s the scenario – you walk into your house after a long day at work and there’s garbage strewn all over the floor. You will probably be pretty upset. And then there’s Fido acting shy and, well, guilty. Remember, your dog is sensitive and keenly attuned to your actions and energy. He will notice the high pitch in your voice and your erratic body movements. He will sense your anxiety. He will understand your heavy sigh. So when your dog demonstrates what you’ve come to think of as “that guilty look,” what his posture is really communicating is that, while he’s happy to see you, he knows you are upset with him.

Even though your pet understands that you are angry with him, he does not know why. And no matter what you do, it will be impossible to make him understand why. A dog will never comprehend why you are pointing at the strewn garbage and scolding him. That is why it is fruitless and irresponsible to correct your dog for an error after the fact; he will not make the connection between the mess and the reprimand.

So even though you are upset—and let’s face it, anybody would be—you must remember that your dog doesn’t know he did anything wrong, and punishing him for something he did as little as five minutes ago is useless. “That guilty look” isn’t what you thought it was before you read this article. The only option you have is to greet your dog neutrally, clean up the mess, and find a better, more secure place to keep the kitchen garbage can. Or invest in a trash can with a more secure lid.

Top photo by an iconoclast/Flickr
Bottom photo by Stacey Cavanagh/Flickr

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell

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  1. This reminds me of my dog Max when he digs our garbage can and things were totally messed. It made me angry but when I look at his face (guilty face), It made me laugh and I was no longer angry. I think it’s my fault too cause I forgot to check if the garbage can was totally close.