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Dog Fear Isn’t Funny or Cute

Many thanks to Kevin Meyers for writing an open letter to Good Morning America, called Dogs Don’t Do Guilt, after the show featured the “guilty dog” from the viral video, perpetuated dog behavior myths, and glossed over what is really happening in the video.

(I’m sure you can find it online, if you haven’t seen it. BUT, I’m not going to link to it.)

Fearful Dog Behavior Isn’t Funny or Cute

When the guilty dog video first started popping up on social media, several friends sent me links. I hated to be such a naysayer, but I couldn’t even watch the whole thing because it made me sad. Having lived with a truly fearful dog these last (nearly) 7 years, I understood what was really going on.

If not outright afraid of being accused (no matter how tongue in cheek) of stealing the cat treats, the dog was clearly uncomfortable about:

  • The guy’s tone of voice
  • The camera looming over him
  • Having the “evidence” foisted into his face again and again

Indeed this sweet yellow lab, threw behavior after behavior to make the anxiety-producing onslaught stop:

  • He got squinty.
  • He looked away.
  • He licked his lips and flicked his tongue.
  • He even curled his lips for an extended period of time in an appeasement grimace.
  • He lowered his body posture and made his head rounder and less threatening.
  • He moved slowly with a little I’m not-a-threat wiggle.

Everything about his body said, “I’m a good boy. Leave me alone. Why are you acting so weird? I don’t know what you want.”

Dog Behavior Myth: Guilty Dogs

As Kevin from Dog Lover’s Digest points out, dogs don’t do guilt. In fact, this study of “guilty looks” in dogs by renowned animal researcher Alexandra Horowitz found that people saw guilt even when the dog was completely innocent.

In fact, the dogs who did NOT eat the forbidden treat in the study looked most “guilty” after being scolded by their (misinformed) owners.

In other words, Horowitz found that such dog behaviors come in response to the owner’s behavior and NOT any known or assumed misdeeds.

So, the poor dog’s behavior had NOTHING to do with the missing cat treats and EVERYTHING to do with the guy holding the camera.

Personally, I don’t find making a dog feel upset or uncomfortable on purpose funny or cute.

Dog Training Failures

Beyond the fear and talk of guilt or innocence, the video also demonstrates a couple of the most common dog training failures:

  • The dog gets “punished” way after the fact. If he even ate those cat treats, it likely was LONG before the video being shot. For punishment (which we don’t condone) to work, it has to be instantaneous. Otherwise, the dog has ZERO clue what the supposed infraction was.
  • The dog gets sent to his crate as punishment. (Crates are supposed to be a safe zone for dogs … not doggy jail.)

The Guilty Dog Challenge

I speculated early on, and even in a comment to Kevin’s post, that I wondered if the dog had been taught to act this way on cue … mostly as a way to make myself feel better about what I was seeing. (I actually could not watch the whole thing it made me so sad.)

Others dismissed the idea, and they are probably right.

I wonder, though, if you could teach a dog, using a clicker and positive reinforcement, to perform these behaviors — like a trick — where the movement (but not the emotion) happen.

I’ve already taught Lilly to perform a few canine calming behaviors on cue, including:

  • Licking her lips (a trick we call YUM)
  • Sniffing the ground (a trick we call SNOOP)
  • Looking at then away from people / dogs (a behavior we call LOOK followed by WATCH ME, if necessary)

So, I’m going to do a little experiment and TRY to teach Lilly to do these things (without her feeling badly about it):

  • Drop her ears
  • Wiggle her butt
  • Curl her lips

Lilly tends to think of dog tricks as hilarious. For example, look how happy she is while putting her toys away (apart from the frustration barking at the end because the treats weren’t coming fast enough).

A Dog Training Foil to Pop Culture Misinformation

So, that’s my way of trying to foil all the misinformation that gets propagated in the mainstream media. I want to show that you CAN get dogs to do very CUTE things … without having to make them feel upset in the process.

Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

MelF - April 15, 2011

Amen! I had the exact same reaction when I saw the video Roxanne. Maybe having a fearful dog does make one more sensitive to those body postures and behaviors, but I was uncomfortable right away because what I saw was fear, not guilt, like so many others thought.

I have a friend who has 3 dogs and she will yell at the one who looks most guilty whenever something happens. I have tried to educate her on this (gently), but to no avail. She firmly believes dogs do act guilty. I think this is like the whole dominance-alpha dog thing. People just refuse to listen and internalize the latest and most accurate data, no matter what we do. 🙁

Mary-Alice - April 7, 2011

I love this post, Roxanne, and I LOVE that video of Lilly. What great work you two are doing together!!

    Roxanne Hawn - April 7, 2011

    Thanks, everyone. That CLEAN UP trick video is indeed one of my favs.

Jeanine Barone - April 4, 2011

Every time I see something like this it seems like bad dog parenting is ubiquitous in our society. Thanks for the tips in this post.

MyKidsEatSquid - April 4, 2011

I didn’t see this video either. Our dog is from a shelter and he’ll cower if you raise your hand quickly. I suspect that he was hit as a puppy, I don’t know. So sad when animals are mistreated.

Susan - March 31, 2011

I didn’t want the video either, but I do feel bad for the poor dog. Thanks for raising awareness about this important issue!

Jana Rade - March 31, 2011

I totally agree – it isn’t neither funny or cute. I find it amazing what people find “cute” and how many fall for that.

Unfortunately it just comes to show how little most people still understand their dogs.

Maery Rose - March 30, 2011

Well, I’m not going to search for it. I may make mistakes when I train but you have to be totally oblivious to dog training best practices to use a crate as punishment. I have a feeling Latte will be teaching me a great deal about training.

p.s. Latte loves the kong. She enjoys batting it around and chasing it. The only problem is that Java wants one too now.

Casey@Good. Food. Stories. - March 29, 2011

I’m consistently impressed by the way you turn these examples of bad dog parenting into teachable moments – likely these owners don’t know what they’re reinforcing in their pet, and you are doing so much to educate!

Alisa Bowman - March 29, 2011

This is interesting. I think we humans (not you, but me and the rest of the clueless humans) read a lot into dog behavior that isn’t really there, such as guilt. Then again, sometimes I come home and I can tell just by the look on my dog’s face that he’s either found a way to break into the garbage can again (somehow I just can’t seem to make this thing indestructible… he’s a smart dog) or he’s broken into the bathroom and eaten our toilet paper. We don’t punish him other than giving him a look. He really does seem to punish himself so much that I can’t even think about doing anything other than cleaning up the mess. And at this point, it’s sort of a family joke. Even as we’re coming up the walkway, we’re saying, “Do you think there’s any TP left in the house?” I mean, he knows we don’t want him to eat it and I suppose he registers the tone of voice or sees me roll my eyes or something. But I never realized that his reaction was one of fear before. But that totally makes sense, even if, in this case, it’s anticipatory.

Merr - March 29, 2011

Oh gosh – I think I saw this and I went away feeling kind of empty and sad for the pups (there were 2 dogs in the video–right–if not there is another icky video out there!) and confused about why the video was popular. I did not like it at all. I am very sensitive to this kind of thing. Thank you for explaining everything so well so more people can understand the real meaning behind animal behavior, even the subtle signs.

Sheryl - March 29, 2011

I did not see this video, but suspect I’d be very upset by it, too. Dogs ;have real feelings and they should not be exploited at all. It’s a shame there are people who think fearful, guilty behavior is cute and encourage a negative response from a dog.

AC - March 29, 2011

I heard about this too and was such the party pooper…”I’m not going to watch that,” was my response.

I’m interested in seeing how the guilty tricks turn out. I’d be a little concerned that they could cause some anxiety, even if taught with positive methods. The body and mind are so smooshed together that I think it’s tough to separate an “anxiety movement” from the feeling of anxiety. That’s why standing up straight can boost confidence, smiling can relieve stress and flopping on the floor in a fetal position for too long will probably make you feel depressed.

Maybe this could be avoided since tricks are over with so quickly…

Christine - March 29, 2011

I completely agree, there is nothing funny about a scared dog. 🙁 I also had a dog who had lots of fears. I am so glad to know you are there as a resource, if we ever have a fearful dog again. It is a huge challenge, and part of it is not understanding the subtle signs dogs give when they are fearful.

Jane Boursaw - March 29, 2011

Thanks for this post, Roxanne. It’s one thing for videos about people acting stupid to go viral, but quite another when a viral video exploits an animal’s fear. Hopefully, more people will think about that before posting these kinds of videos.

Ally - March 29, 2011

I agree! I DETEST that video! Poor labby! Great post, as always! 😀

Aly - March 29, 2011

It’s totally possible to teach. All I have to do is say “cat poop” to Clementine, even in a happy/non-threatening voice..and she drops her ears back and looks away. We alternate between saying cat poop and frisbee.

Cat poop – ears down, look away
frisbee – ears up! happy face!
cat poop – ears down
frisbee! happy face!

CeliaSue Hecht - March 29, 2011

thank you !!! I hate that video and could NOT see what was so funny about mistreating a dog like that. making a dog cringe or punishing a dog is abuse. what does it say about our society that people think that it is funny to treat a dog like that???? ugh…

Kevin Myers - March 29, 2011

Thank you for writing this Roxanne. When I did my post I wanted to focus mainly on the fact that I thought GMA did a poor job by not answering and obvious question about dog’s displaying guilty looks. However, I was equally upset by the fact that Denver himself seemed to be a very shy and fearful dog and his attempts to calm his owners with his behaviors were being overlooked.

Looking forward to the results of your Guilty Dog Challenge.

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