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.