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What If We’re Reading Our Pets All Wrong?

We’ve all seen the videos that go viral online: a pet owner comes home to find bits of toilet paper strewn across the carpet. They whip out their phones and start videotaping as they find their poodle mix hovered behind the couch, ears tucked, mouth curled into a nervous, apologetic smile. “Sammy, is this you?” the person accuses, pointing to the mess. The dog drops his head, offers a small tail wag, and the guilt is practically palpable. Or is it?

To us humans, it’s hard to imagine what else that reaction could be. But according to dog-cognition expert Alexandra Horowitz, it has less to do with guilt and more to do with how our dogs think we want them to respond. In a study conducted to test this theory, Horowitz instructed dog owners to place a treat in front of their furry friends, forbid them from eating it, then leave the room. While the owners were gone, Horowitz would either take the treat away or feed it to the dog. When the owners came back, Horowitz would tell the owners their dog had eaten the treat. When owners reprimanded the dog, they would respond similarly – whether or not they had actually eaten the treat. Interestingly, the dogs that hadn’t eaten the treat responded just as guiltily – sometimes more so, than the dogs that had eaten the treat. Researchers believe the look to be more so an act of submission than anything else. In a pack, for example, the alpha dog might reprimand a lower ranking dog for taking a bite of something before its their turn. The scolded dog may crouch or back off as a way to reduce conflict. Could this be a similar response to the one we receive when we scold Fido? More than likely, yes.

So how should pet owners respond to bad behavior (or a living room covered in toilet paper)? Horowitz has wise and practical advice: keep temptations low. Put food and garbage away, keep your shoes in the closet, and consider crating if destruction is a big issue. Because it’s so unclear whether dogs understand after the fact that they’ve done something wrong, Horowitz recommends setting your dog up for success rather than failure. After all, we want coming home to be as positive of an experience as possible for both humans and four legged friends.

Do you think dogs feel guilt? Feel free to share in the comments below!