We naturally interpret everything our dog does through the only filter we have at our disposal-our own perspective as a human.
Unfortunately, dogs are not humans and although so many of their expressions look like ours, they almost always have very different meanings.
Take the photo of the dog to the left.
What would you guess about this dog based on this photo?
Most people will answer "This dog feels sad" Some may also interpret his expression as one of guilt, especially if they had arrived just in time to see him slink from the room.
Actually, the dog in the photo above is feeling worry and is trying to avoid conflict-this worry may have been triggered by something as innocuous as the camera lens, as focused and unblinking as a giant eye. The dog is uncomfortable, yes. Guilty, no. I will explain more about that later.
First, look how similar the dog's expression is to the one of the dark haired woman in the photo, who clearly is feeling sadness (and perhaps guilt).Test yourself here (use your browser's back button to return to this article) to see how well you recognize expressions!
How well did you do? Were you surprised at all?click here to try a similar test of interpreting canine expressions. Very different, right?
Back to our subject at hand. The woman on the right is also feeling conflict of some sort ("Uh-oh! Did I leave my good shoes out?") The little dog below is wearing an almost identical expression.
Once again-with a very different meaning.
The dog may, to us, look remorseful and perhaps guilty (especially given his surroundings). Likely, this dog is reacting to the anger signals given by the human who just discovered her $1,000 plus mistake.
Consider this for a moment... remorse is "an expression of personal regret". Dogs do not understand the concept of "expensive shoes". To a dog, such as the pug in the photo, this pile of shoes is merely a pile of chewy stuff that smells wonderfully like us.
To experience personal regret for something he has no concept of is impossible.
But, darn it-it sure looks like remorse!
Therein lies the problem and the root of so many canine/human misunderstandings. If your own eyes are telling you one thing and yet someone (me) is telling you another, who are you going to believe?
Rest assured, you are not alone.
This experience is so common that Alexandra Horowitz, Assistant Professor at Barnard College in New York set about finding an explanation.
A study was done in which dog owners were asked to leave the room after ordering their dogs to not eat a tempting treat that was then left behind. While the humans were away, Ms. Horowitz gave some of the dogs the treat, and some she did not. When the humans returned, they were either told their dog ate the treat when it did not, or that the dog did not eat the treat, when it had.
Some dogs were scolded for eating the treat when they had not.
Some dogs were scolded for eating the treats and had actually done so.
The dogs "looked guilty" when scolded, whether they had eaten the treat or not!
The dogs were responding to the human's behavior. Their reactions were ones of appeasement, not guilt. (You can read a more thorough description of the experiment here)
Next time you arrive home to find a pile of chewed shoes, don't punish the dog! Do feel free to admonish yourself, however. And feel free to look guilty-you have earned it!