Time and time again I see pictures and videos posted online of the guilty dog who knows he did something really bad. That naughty boy’s face quickly goes viral, probably because so many dog owners can relate.
What I know about behavior
I’ve been learning about and practicing behavior science and applied behavior analysis for more than 13 years after Dr. Susan Friedman first introduced me to it and sparked my passion for wanting to know more.
Behavior, Susan has taught me, is simply an animal’s tool to get a consequence. Behavior helps an animal to get something of value (a reinforcing consequence) or to move away from something aversive (a punishing consequence). Behavior is measurable and observable. It is something the animal ‘does’ NOT something the animal ‘is’. (Chewing an old shoe is a behavior. Being a naughty dog is NOT a behavior but a label or construct.)
Operant learning occurs when a relationship is formed between that behavior and its consequence. The behavior either continues and becomes stronger because it gets the animal a consequence of value, or the behavior decreases because its consequence is aversive to the animal. Thorndike gave the name for this relationship the law of effect, meaning the behavior’s strength that you see today is because of the consequences of that behavior in the past.
Important to understanding how learning occurs are two terms: Contiguity and Contingency. Contiguity refers to the closeness in time between the behavior and its consequence while Contingency refers to the degree of correlation between the behavior and its consequence (*if* I do this behavior, *the* this is the consequence that will follow). The less time there is between the behavior and its consequence, the quicker and easier the animal can build that relationship.
This is why clickers or verbal markers like ‘yes’ are so effective because they are immediate feedback to the animal that the very specific behavior occurring when the click is made is what is getting him the consequence of something valuable.
Important to the understanding of the ‘guilty’ look on your dog’s face after much time has passed between the ‘naughty’ behavior and the time when you walked in is that the two C’s of behavior apply to both positive AND negative consequences.
I do not advocate for punishment because there are so many negative ramifications of it. Among them: punishment only serves to stop the behavior – not to teach what behavior you’d like you puppy to do instead; punishment actually is two aversives – the onset of a punishing stimulus and the removal of the reinforcer that has maintained the behavior; punishment does not teach the caregiver how to teach new skills but it does serve to reinforce the caregiver increasing the likelihood that the teacher will use negative strategies in the future. Additionally, by using punishing strategies you are teaching your dog to associate negative consequences with being near you. (Please see my post on punishment here.)
However, I need to point out that even for punishment to work, it would need to occur immediately after the behavior in order for the animal to build that association in his mind that *if* I do this, *then* this happens.
What do I know about dogs?
Well, among what I know is that they have a need to be physically and mentally stimulated. Some more than others. And chewing on a smelly shoe can get a puppy or dog numerous positive consequences – among them sensory and mental stimulation.
So, by the time you walk in much later, is your dog really showing submissive body language because he knows he did something ‘bad’ (from your perspective) or because he associates you with punishing him?
In the case of Denver the Guilty Dog, the Youtube video that went viral, is the dog really feeling ‘guilty’ or is he licking his lips, moving his head away from the package and blinking his eyes (calming signals in dog body language that they use to avoid conflict) because his owner is holding a plastic bag too close for comfort? Is Denver holding his head down and then showing his teeth because he is really guilty or he is trying to avoid conflict?
Research tells all
Alexandra Horowitz, Ph.D., a term assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College and the author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know did some research into this very subject and wrote about it in Psychology Today.
In her research, owners confronted guilty and innocent dogs of eating a forbidden treat. She found one clear result: “The ‘look’ happened most when dogs saw scolding, questioning or angry owners, whether the dog was guilty or not. Later work replicated this finding. And separate research has found that owners are right only 50 percent of the time — the equivalent of random chance — when asked to guess, by looking at their dogs, if the dogs had transgressed in their absence” (She wrote in the Washington Post).
In her Psychology Today article, Dr. Horowitz shared, “What this shows is that the guilty look, our index for assuming a dog knows when he’s done something wrong, is actually prompted most as a response to the behavior of the human. Whether actually scolding a dog–using a deep, chastising tone of voice, approaching with a wagging finger and an angry face–or in preparation to scolding, the owners’ behavior is recognizable to dogs. To avoid being punished, they act submissively, non-threateningly, as they might with a larger, more forceful playmate.”
The responsibility is on us
When we take animals into our homes, we need to recognize their needs for mental and physical exercise. We can either provide them with appropriate choices for getting their needs met or we need to understand that they will find their own choices…and we may not be happy with what they come up with.
The really great thing here is that not only will we be setting our pets up for success by giving them good choices, we will be strengthening our relationship with our pets as they come to associate us as the giver of those good things.
I don’t know about you but I would much rather have my dog greet me with a wagging tail than with his tail between his legs, his head lowered, and his ears plastered back.
Please see my video below on providing choices for my Timneh African Grey, Barnaby.