Julie Hecht, Applied ethologist
Dog owners ascribe guilt to dogs, and we explored this attribution with pet dogs and their owners using a questionnaire and experiment. The questionnaire found that the majority of owners perceive dog behavior as guilty in certain situations and believe that dogs know when they have committed a disapproved act. As a novel finding, the questionnaire revealed that dog presentation of guilty behavior could lead owners to scold dogs less.
The experiment aimed to investigate the owner-reported anecdote that dogs sometimes greet owners displaying guilty behavior. Owners claim to be unaware of a dog's misdeed and assert it is the guilty behavior that informs them of the dog's infraction. We studied whether dogs that were disobedient in owners’ absences showed associated behaviors of guilt (ABs) upon owners’ return to a room. We also assessed whether owners could determine their dog's disobedience by relying solely on the dog's greeting behavior.
Behavioral analysis revealed no significant difference between obedient and disobedient dogs in their display of ABs after having the opportunity to break a rule in owners’ absences. Analyses at the individual level, however, revealed a significant increase in CROSS SITUATIONAL presentation of ABs only by dogs that transgressed in owners’ absences. While owners appeared able to determine whether or not their dogs ate in their absences, a subset of owners—those whose decisions were most likely based solely on dog greeting behavior and not earlier experiment-generated cues—were not better than chance in their determinations. Taken together, our findings suggest that dog presentation of ABs during greetings is not necessarily a reliable indicator whether or not a dog engaged in a misdeed. The investigated phenomenon appears to be very sensitive to the social condition, which includes owner prior experience with their dog in specific contexts.