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Jessi is joined by Ruby the dog as they explore the guilty dog look and what it really means.


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Hi guys.  This is Ruby and we're having kind of a lazy day today because Ruby slipped on a patch of ice while playing outside and strained her knee.  We're taking it pretty easy but Ruby's only three years old and she's already getting bored of this sedentary lifestyle, so I thought we could do an experiment to keep things interesting.


For you dog owners out there, have you ever experienced your dog acting guilty?  Even if you don't own a dog, you've probably seen it.  They get all melty with big droopy eyes, slicked back ears, and they sink their head down into a slouch.  They look totally guilty, right?  If they look guilty to you, then congratulations, you're human.  You're assessing their behavior through the filter of human social communication, but if you take a step back and stop anthropomorphizing and assess them from a dog's perspective, you'll see that they're actually communicating fear and attempting to appease an aggressor.

When a human sees this, they see a guilty dog, but the dog is actually just trying to make it less likely for their owner to punish or scold them.  The belief that dogs know when they've done something wrong like peeing on the carpet or chewing up a pair of shoes is so common that several studies have been done to test the validity of guilt in dogs.  Every one of the tests produced the same result: if the human scolds the dog, then they will express the guilty behavior whether they've committed the crime or not.  

They also don't exhibit the cowering or droopy behavior unless their human is or has scolded them, meaning dogs aren't reacting to their humans catching them doing something wrong.  They're exhibiting body stances of fear when they see their humans getting upset and they're attempting to appease them to avoid a conflict, so what we're seeing is a fear response. 

Fear is a simple emotion while guilt is a complex emotion.  Guilt is caught up in thinking about past and future events.  Scientists find it challenging to study and prove that other beings' brains can do this.  There is no data on if dogs can experience the complex emotion of guilt.  Wouldn't it be nice if you could just ask them what they're thinking?  Until then, all we can do is study their behaviors and non-verbal communications and see what we can determine without getting into their minds.

Ruby, are you ready to take the guilty dog test?  First, I'm gonna get a treat that Ruby totally wants to eat and I'm gonna place it in a place that she can reach it.  Then, I'm gonna establish the rule that she's not supposed to eat the treat.  I've covered the back of the chair so when I leave the room for a bit and come back in, I won't be able to see if she's eaten the treat or not.  When I return, we'll see what her behavior tells us.

If she's eaten the treat, when I come back in, will she act guilty that she's broken the rule?  Without looking, can I tell by her behavior whether she's eaten the treat or not?  What will happen if I scold her?  If she's broken the rule, will she act more guilty than if she's innocent?

Alright, let's give this a try.  I have some shredded cheese here and I'm gonna place it on the stool and then tell Ruby it's not for her.  Uh-uh.  Uh-uh.  I'm gonna help her out a little bit by telling her to sit and stay while I leave the room.  Okay, here I go.  Stay.  

Alright.  I can't tell if she's eaten it from here, so I think by her behavior she's totally licking her lips, so I think she's totally eaten it, but she's not acting guilty at all.  Alright, I'm going to scold her.  I'm going to go over.  Ruby, uh-uh.  Bad girl.  Why'd you eat the cheese?  Bad girl.  Totally acting guilty.  Ohh, sweetheart.  I know, it's too hard.  You totally did.  You little sneaker.  

So Ruby has demonstrated exactly what so many dog owners have experienced, but the behavior she was exhibiting was not guilt, it was fear.  She wasn't acting guilty until I started to scold her and she was reacting to me communicating that I was upset by trying to appease me to smooth over the interaction.  This is a common behavior seen in social animals like some primates and wolves, among others.  

So the truth is, Ruby would act guilty if scolded whether she broke the rule or not, so the next time you see a pup cowering with big droopy eyes, realize that they don't know that they did something bad and all they want to do is appease you and be friends again because dogs are amazing animals and there's no other species that has quite the same relationship with humans.

Well, I hope that was fun for you, Ruby.  Waiting for your body to heal can be so boring sometimes.  Here, have a toy.  Look at this.  This.  (squeaks)  Here.  Chew it up, make a mess, and enjoy yourself.  

Thanks for joining us on this lazy day and if you'd like to see us try anything special with our animals like this or our catnip experiment, let me know in the comments down below, and if you'd like to go on an adventure with us every week, subscribe to our YouTube channel AnimalWondersMontana.  Thanks, guys.


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