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What Actually Prompts a Dog’s “Guilty” Look?

It's not what you might think.

If you have a dog, you know what your dog’s “guilty” look is. Picture it: You come home from running errands. Usually, Spot comes running to the door to greet you, but right now, it’s quiet… too quiet. You call her name and walk into the kitchen, only to find the trash can tipped over, its contents torn up and strewn about the floor. Who could have committed this crime? you wonder, since your sweet dog looks oh-so-angelic, with her tail wagging, eyes squinting, ears pressed back, lips curled up in a sheepish grin. At least, that’s the image she’s hoping to portray — but you know better. Her body language belies her innocence: The culprit is clear.

Dogs are smart, but do they feel guilt? How do they know when and how to look guilty? The answer to these questions may not be what you think. Keep reading to learn more about dogs’ guilty body language. 

How well can dogs express their emotions to begin with?

Pretty well, as it turns out. You know that when your dog wags her tail, she’s happy; when she has it between her legs, she’s scared. But dogs express emotions with more than just their tails. Keep reading to learn what common emotions dogs show, and what it looks like when they’re feeling them, according to the dog pros at Pure Pet Food


This is probably how your pup acts after you’ve come home and changed into your comfies — it’s clear you’re in for the night. When a dog is feeling relief, she will relax with her whole body: Her eyes are soft, her tail may be lazily wagging, and she’ll likely recline, looking content and sleepy. 


When a dog is angry, she wants to appear bigger than she is: Her hair will stand on end, and her body will be stiff and rigid, with most of her weight on her front two feet. Her pupils may dilate, she may growl and bare teeth, and her tail will either be straight up and still, or tucked in between her legs. Give an angry dog a wide berth — she’s communicating that she feels threatened and may attack. 


If your dog likes to look out the window on squirrel patrol, you’re probably familiar with alert body language. When she’s alert, her eyes will be bright and wide, her ears will be perked forward, and her tail will probably remain still as she concentrates on her surroundings. 


This one’s our favorite. A happy dog will wag her tail, but she may also have it down, in a relaxed state. Her mouth will be open, looking like a smile, and her eyes will be natural and calm — maybe excited and alert, but there should be no visible whites. (Want to make your pup really happy? Click through to see if dogs are ticklish.)

Anxious, Afraid, or Vulnerable

As much as you try to make your dog feel happy all of the time, she will likely still feel uncomfortable and afraid in some situations. When she’s feeling this way, she may display a variety of different behaviors, like: 

  • A lowered, still, or fully tucked tail
  • Excessive yawning and licking of lips
  • Flattened ears
  • Lowered head 
  • Shaking
  • Rolling on her back to show submission
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Squinting 

The reasons behind and sources of dogs’ fears are varied — so are their behaviors. It’s therefore good to recognize these signs, since they’re the best way your dog knows how to communicate.

Can dogs really express guilt?

You may notice that “guilt” wasn’t on the list above. That doesn’t necessarily mean a dog can’t feel it, though. There’s no definitive way to look inside a dog’s brain and understand exactly how she feels. Still, body language can give us a good guess. On the list above, what section of behaviors is most similar to your dogs’ “guilty” look? Many owners would say that guilty body language is almost identical to the anxious, afraid, and vulnerable body language. 

Before you say, Hey! I’m a gentle owner! My dog isn’t afraid of me! — know she might not be. However, studies show that while dogs may not understand the complexity of guilt, they can understand when you’re unhappy. When you walk into the kitchen and see that the chicken you just roasted and left to rest on the counter has been reduced to crumbs on the floor, you probably don’t respond with a tone of blasé expectancy. You’re surprised, and most likely, upset. 

Your dog is very perceptive to your feelings, and understands when you admonish her. But does she connect the correction to her previous behavior and feel remorse? Probably not, says a study published in Elsevier. In this study, researchers told dogs not to eat a “forbidden treat” set in front of them, and then asked their owners to leave the room. When owners returned, researchers told them whether or not their dog had eaten this treat — but didn’t tell the truth in every case. They found that dogs who hadn’t actually eaten the treat, but were admonished by their owner, exhibited more “guilty” behaviors than the dogs who had actually eaten it but weren’t admonished. These results suggest that dogs are responding more to owner behavior than any internal feeling of regret or shame. Another study published in Behavioral Processes further confirms these findings.

The Bottom Line

Human perception of dog behavior isn’t always spot-on. When dogs act “guilty,” they’re most likely responding to our actions, tones of voice, and posture — not feelings of remorse about their own misdeeds. Still, even if dogs don’t actually feel guilt the way we thought, we’ll always think they’re pretty darn lovable.

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