Puppy eyes: The human race’s weakness.
We’ve all known dogs who have invaded cabinets, massacred pillow cases and chewed up a week’s supply of toilet paper. You know immediately who’s done it, the one with the downtrodden face and tail flat to the ground. His face says it all: He’s guilty.
Except he’s not. In fact, we’re being fooled – by ourselves.
They may look at you with their big, sad eyes as they slink around the house. But whether you forgive them or yell ‘bad dog,’ they’re actually not conscious of the fact that they’ve done something we won’t like.
In fact, that guilty look that your dog gives you when they’ve done wrong is actually a much less complex emotion: Fear.
Back in 2009, Alexandra Horowitz conducted a study about the guilty looks our dogs give us. In the experiment, owners instructed their pets not to eat a treat, then left the room.
When they came back, they were told whether or not their dog ate it. Horowitz found that if a dog was scolded, it would give it’s owner a ‘guilty’ look – even if it hadn’t eaten the treat.
So what does this mean? ‘Guilty’ behaviours such as lowering the head, whining or squinting are all submissive responses to stress or fear. If a dog does this, it’s not because they know they’ve done wrong, it’s because they’re trying to make you less angry.
If a dog looks shameful before you know what they’ve done, it’s because they’ve been scolded before so they’re reacting to what they think will come again soon.
Horowitz recently told IFL Science:
It seems unlikely that they have the same types of thinking about thinking that we do, because of their really different brains.
That first bit is especially important – the concept of ‘thinking about thinking,’ sometimes known as ‘executive function’ — because it means dogs aren’t likely to reflect on their past actions and decide they’ve done something wrong.
So while it may seem like your dog is begging for your forgiveness, they’re actually just trying to get out of conflict.
Instead of scolding them, try to figure out why they misbehaved in the first place. No one likes a sad puppy.