Puppy eyes; the human weakness…
We all know dogs who have invaded cupboards, massacred cushions and chewed up a month’s supply of toilet roll… You know immediately who’s done it, the one with the downtrodden face and tail flat to the ground. His face really does speak volumes: “I did it, soz”.
Or so we think… In actual fact, we are all being fooled… by ourselves. They may look at you with their wide, sad-looking eyes as they slink around the house. But whether you forgive them or yell “bad dog”, they’re actually not conscious of the fact that they have done anything that we won’t like.
That soppy, guilty look that your dog gives you when they’ve done wrong is actually a far-less complex emotion: Fear.
During 2009, Alexandra Horowitz conducted a study about the guilty looks our dogs give us. In the experiment, owners instructed their pets not to eat a treat, then left the room… When they returned, they were told whether or not their dog ate the treat. Horowitz found that if a dog was told off by it’s owner, it would give a “guilty” look – even if it hadn’t eaten the treat.
So what does this mean? “Guilty” behaviours such as lowering the head, whining or squinting are all submissive responses to stress or fear the dog is feeling at the time as a result of an action towards it. If a dog does this, it’s not because they know that they’ve done any wrongdoing, it’s simply because they’re trying to make you less angry. If a dog looks shameful before you know what they’ve done, it’s because they’ve been scolded before so they’re reacting to what they think will come again soon.
Horowitz recently told IFL Science:
It seems unlikely that they have the same types of thinking about thinking that we do, because of their really different brains.
That first bit is especially important – the concept of “thinking about thinking”, sometimes known as “executive functions” because it means dogs aren’t likely to reflect on their past actions and decide they’ve done something wrong.
So while it may seem like your dog is begging you for forgiveness, they’re actually just trying to get out of conflict. Instead of scolding them, try to figure out why they misbehaved in the first place… No one likes a sad puppy.