Blogs on dogs

He knows he’s done wrong…

guiltyPeople are naming and shaming their dogs for “misdeeds” on the internet.

How many times have we heard it? When the pet has, for the umpteenth time, chewed the shoes, taken the Sunday joint (that’s meat by the way, not an interesting smoke), peed on the mat, laddered the tights by jumping up… and… and… “Ba-a-a-d dog! See, he knows he’s done wrong – see the look on his face!

Does he really?

It is normal for humans to assume that dogs know what they themselves know. I know when I’ve done wrong and, if I ever do something I shouldn’t (not that I’m admitting I do, mind you), I feel a pang of guilt inside. A nagging little angel on my shoulder saying, “You shouldn’t have oughta done that – that was bad”. I bet you feel it too (and sometimes a little devil on the other shoulder saying “Go on – it was good – do it again!”)

But there isn’t a little angel or devil is there? The “voice” comes from inside you. And psychologists and neuroscientists believe that the “voice” is uniquely human. We are probably the only species that experiences life and then makes up a little story in our heads to justify it. Popular science writers Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen (Science of Discworld series) think we shouldn’t be called Homo Sapiens (wise man), but Pan Narrans – the storytelling ape – because we weave a story around everything.

Nobody really knows how, or even why, we evolved this extra-consciousness, but it seems to be linked to language and empathy, resulting in a higher kind of what is termed a “theory of mind”.

A theory of mind is just a way of saying that I know what I experience – I can describe it to myself and to you – but I also realise that you experience the same things and I can recognise my feelings in you. I can put myself in your place and can see myself feeling the emotion you are feeling.

There are special types of brain cells in the prefrontal cortex (the front of the brain most developed in humans but much less developed in other mammals) called “mirror neurons” that fire when we imitate an action of another person. These same neurons fire when we see an emotion that is being expressed by someone – we see a picture of a child crying and literally feel their sorrow, or at least some of it.

What this means for humans is that not only do we feel others’ joy, sorrow, excitement and guilt, we expect others to do it too. And other humans do. But dogs aren’t humans, no matter how much they share our homes and families.

We see the living room trashed, or the empty roasting tin upended on the floor, or the chewed shoe, and a dog.  So we construct a story in our head, like a TV Who-dunnit, because we are Pan narrans. The story goes, “The dog is sitting next to a chewed shoe. The dog done it. (Be pleased it wasn’t the butler). I know it is wrong to chew shoes. Therefore the dog knows it is wrong to chew shoes. I would feel guilty if I’d chewed the shoe. The dog must feel guilty.” Roll end credits and cue music.

Except our story is fiction, not fact. It is OK up to, “The dog done it”. But not, “The dog knows it is wrong to…” We’ve found the perp, but not the motive.  All crimes are solved by establishing Motive, Means and Opportunity (trust me I know these things – I used to be a policeman). The dog has the Means (teeth) and Opportunity (we left the shoes out) but what is his Motive?

Well, it could be playfulness (big daft puppy!) or loneliness (Mum’s left me on my own and I love her so much I can’t bear it, so I cuddle something that smells of her and Ooo! It tastes good too, and something to chew makes me feel better…) or even just plain boredom. The motive for the Sunday roast-fest shouldn’t be so hard to understand…

But did he know it was wrong? No. It just felt the right thing to do at the time. Dogs live in the moment. Their instinct tells them to grab any opportunity that is in front of their face. That’s not wrong, that’s a survival instinct honed by evolution. Everything they do is because they feel it is the right thing to do at the time. This isn’t so different from you and I, but you and I know that society places rules on us. Our human society, our human rules. Not canine society or rules.

“Anthropomorphism” means assigning human characteristics to other animals. It is a natural human trait. But it is wrong. Other animals aren’t humans. Their value systems do not coincide with ours – even our own children have to learn human values. If dogs don’t share our values of right and wrong it is not their fault. They are conforming to their own judgements – judgements that say, “Do the right thing for YOU, now.” And if the right thing to help the dog is to scoff the roast beef, or chew the shoe, or whatever, that’s the right thing from the dog’s perspective.

So, “He shouldn’t have done it because knew it was wrong” is strike one – he wasn’t wrong in his value system. Strike two is, “He knows he has done wrong after he did it.” Because dogs don’t have a theory of mind comparable to ours (but probably a slightly lesser concept of “self”) they can’t put themselves in our position of thinking, “She knows what I know”. So they can’t feel guilt.

What dogs are extremely good at is interpreting body language. And the second you open the door and see your Jimmy Choo, chewed (why call them “Choos” if they’re not for chewing?!), your face drops. Your face drops and your dog thinks, “I know that look – and that look is always followed by “Ba-a-ad dog!” Oh, sh… heck… I’m in trouble (no idea what for, but in trouble).” And dogs have very expressive body language for trying to get out of trouble. People call it “appeasement”, “threat reduction”, “deferring” or “avoidance” and it consists of looking away and down, or skulking off, crouching, tail tucked, head turned, maybe lip-licking, ears back and down, sometimes even “grinning”.

Exactly what humans interpret as a “guilty look”. Except it isn’t. It can’t be. Firstly because the canine value system doesn’t follow ours and secondly because they lack our theory of mind.

But he knows it is wrong because I’ve told him not to when I’m there”. No, what you’ve told him is not to do it WHEN YOU’RE THERE. Not, “not to do it”. It is simple associative learning. He understands that it is wrong to do it when you are there, but he doesn’t know it is wrong per se. The same canine logic applies to repeated “wrong” events. He chews the Choo, because he can and it feels good at the time. You turn up afterwards and create havoc, pointing at the chewed-Choo. It is easy to make a connection between chewed-Choo and you creating havoc. But the havoc only arrives with you. To paraphrase George Orwell, “Chewed-Choo, good. Chewed-Choo plus you, bad.” The bad thing is YOU, not the chewed-Choo (I wish I’d never started this Choo business – I’m feeling like an extra from Thomas the Tank Engine).

Alexandra Horowitz has done some fascinating experiments where owners placed a treat on the floor in front of their dog, told them to leave it and then left the room. A researcher immediately picked up the dog treat and told the owner to come back in because their dog had eaten it. The dog had done nothing and could not possibly feel guilty or “know he had done wrong”, because he hadn’t, but when owners scolded their pets they interpreted their appeasement as a “guilty look”.

A “guilty look” is a human misinterpretation of canine avoidance behaviours brought on by the dog’s response to human ire, or previous learning that a chewed-Choo plus human equals trouble – but only when the human turns up. It is fear of being scolded that makes a dog look like that, not guilt.

The next time you think your dog looks guilty, give him a break. He didn’t mean to make you mad.

Oh, and naming and shaming on the internet? For goodness sake grow up. It probably doesn’t do the dog any harm, but trying to be clever by displaying your ignorance of your own dog? Really!

By the way, Fox isn’t “looking guilty”, she’s just worried about the other dog.

Just like a “guilty” dog is worried about you…IMG_8890 (3)

8 replies on “He knows he’s done wrong…”

Thank you for writing this article. People can be SO ignorant when it comes to humanising animals. If only they would take the time to understand their behaviours it would save a lot of unnecessary stress that is inflicted on pets and a lot of unnecessary injuries to people…especially to children.

Our 12 months old Irish Terrier will be sitting in a pile of destroyed belongings with no sign of guilt. In the past we had dogs which didn’t greet us in the usual cheerful way, or even hid, when they had been destructive or had taken food. We had to look around to find out what they had done.

Not sure what your point is? If it is that dogs show “guilt”, try reading the piece again. Your dogs can make a learned association between you arrival and the presence of a chewed-Choo, even if you aren’t aware of the chew-Choo. It was you they were worried about, not guilt. Regards, David

P.S what is a Jimmy choo? I thought you were talking about some dog chew brand, but then you say it is not for chewing,confused.

well, my dog can read and it did say Jimmy Choo on the jimmy choo shoe box and so that’s what he did….hahaha
But really, a great article and I thought the very same when I saw those ‘naming and shaming’ websites. i think it’s remarkable the amount of people who believe in the ‘guilty look’ thing.
guilt = moral regret no?

Good article. I have absolutely no idea how dogs manage to cope with us humans as well as they do. I really don’t.

I too have read some naming and shaming stuff and yes, I admit, some had me cracking up laughing (but at least I know it’s my human intepretation of the dog’s expression that has me going).

Great article, as are the others I’ve read so far. I remember trying to explain this when I was teaching obedience classes. I know some students “got it” while others just didn’t. All we can do is try.

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