I can tell Rufus knows he has done something wrong because he is acting guilty!
But can he....?
Guilt is a complex emotion that requires judgement of right and wrong as well as knowledge of time and is considered rare in non-primate species. The look humans interpret as guilt is more likely a combination of signals that indicate a dog is under stress or fearful. Dogs often show these appeasement or calming signals when our body language indicates that we are distressed or even sometimes when we are happy stressed (eustress). Physiologically both types of stress cause similar responses in the body, such as elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, and hormone release to name a few. We do not even have to say anything or “yell” since they are keenly aware of our internal physiology and even a subtle change in our blood pressure or heart rate is not unknown to them. Afterall, dogs can be trained to smell cancer and alert diabetic people that their blood sugar is dropping. Animal behavior can be quite complex, though, and there could be some learned behaviors associated with “the guilty look”. I will not go into detail on this aspect, but if you are interested, here is a great link to check out.
A quick Google search of “dogs and guilty” reveals images of dogs with the whites of their eyes showing (called whale eye), ears lowered, and their bodies crouched. If you can see the whites of a dog’s eye, many times it is because the dog is also “freezing” in position and looking either away from or towards the stressor. Due to our own human displays of guilt, we often interpret similar behaviors in dogs as guilt as well, whereas in reality the dog has observed our body language and is moving up the ladder of stress. They try very hard in most cases to avoid confrontation and will use appeasement and calming signals first as a means of showing their discomfort. If you are seeing this type of body language, it is not because they feel guilty for a past transgression, it is because they are trying to avoid conflict in the moment.
When it comes to interpreting dog body language it is also important to consider the context in which we are seeing it. A dog may yawn at night time because they are tired, but a dog yawning while getting her nails trimmed may signal she is feeling uncomfortable. Most importantly, if we can learn how to “hear” what they are trying to tell us through their language, we can hopefully reduce their stress and prevent an aggressive incident down the road. Rarely, do dogs react out of nowhere, it may just be that we did not know how to or did not listen to their early signals. The Ladder of Stress in Canines picture provided in this article is a great basic guide on how to recognize canine stress signals. If you would like more information or if you ever need help, please reach out to a certified dog trainer. CCRC is always happy to provide recommendations!
Jaime Martin, MA, CPDT-KA
Ladder of Stress in Canines originally from: