When you come home and find that Fido chewed one of your shoes to the point where you need new shoes, don’t you just want to yell at him right there and then for being a bad dog?
You may even feel like your dog knows he did something wrong and has that “guilty look.”
According to a 2009 study, dogs do not feel guilt, and when we see the telltale “guilty look” we are only anthropomorphizing them and assigning human emotions because we think they know what they did wrong. Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College in New York concluded that “a better description of the so-called guilty look is that it is a response to owner cues,” rather than whether the dog was actually guilty or not.
Timing Is Everything
As good dog owners, we should use this information to help us communicate with our dog.
If we want to scold our dog for chewing our shoes, we should make sure the timing is correct so we aren’t confusing him and disciplining him when we don’t need to. (The point of perfecting the timing of your verbal correction is to ensure you are minimizing the amount of corrections you are giving and correcting the dog only when it’s effective.)
Any type of correction must be enforced only at the time of the infraction. This means you should verbally correct your dog while he is in the act of grabbing your shoe for a good chewing, or during the destruction. The BEST time to scold is when he is grabbing your shoe — the dog will know you’re disciplining him for interacting with the shoe at all, which should be off-limits to him. (If your dog is chewing inappropriately, don’t miss my earlier article “Stop a Dog from Chewing Everything in Sight.”)
Watch this quick video of a “guilty dog” and see how the dog’s emotions change in response to the woman’s cues:
“Hey, Calm Down, Please”
Dogs live in the moment and don’t have a memory like we do. If you scold your dog for an accident he did three hours ago, it will be just as effective as scolding him out of the blue.
It’s a myth that if you stick your dog’s nose in his accident and throw a temper tantrum, he will feel guilty for pottying on your rug. In fact, the “guilty” look your dog is having is just a reaction to you having a freak out.
If you observe your dog’s body language while the dog is being verbally disciplined, you will most likely see a head down, rapid blinking, yawning, ears down and turning away. Behaviorists all suggest that these are calming signals that dogs give to one another to communicate to another animal for them to settle down.
Therefore, this “guilty look” you may be seeing is actually your dog trying to tell you to calm down. If you were to walk up to your dog right now and start yelling at him, he would have the same reaction as if he was being scolded for something he did minutes or hours ago.
When Scolding Backfires
As a trainer, I most commonly see people ineffectively scolding their dog when their dog doesn’t come to them after being called.
The owner will get very angry at the dog for not responding to the recall once the dog comes back to them. Yelling at your dog when he returns to you doesn’t correct the irresponsiveness of ignoring the recall. You actually end up in effect disciplining your dog for coming to you, because you give the verbal correction when he is near you.
When training the recall, it’s best to avoid discipline — to avoid confusing the dog and to keep the training experience upbeat and positive.
I always encourage people to minimize the amount of corrections used when training your dog. Scolding and discipline should amount to no more than 10% of your training program. That said, when you feel your dog needs a correction, it’s essential that you time it appropriately to be effective and avoid confusing your dog.