By this time, you may have viewed the viral video depicting Denver the dog who appears to look guilty after allegedly eating cat treats. Here is the video in case you haven’t seen it:
Many people find this video cute. I can’t help but feel a slight discomfort when I view it.
I mean, the question is…do dogs really feel guilty after the fact?
Is Denver really displaying guilt? Did he even eat the cat treats for that matter?
Or is he just responding to the tone of his owner’s voice?
For instance, is it not a generally accepted notion that when house training a dog, you should never reprimand him if some time has passed since he soiled the rug. The idea in that example is that the dog does not associate your correction with an act that was done a while ago. So, if this is the case, why would a dog act “guilty” about something done in the past?
Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, oversaw an experiment where various dogs were videotaped while left in a room alone with a tasty treat. The owner of each dog was asked to bring the dog’s attention to the treat and clearly instruct the dog not to eat it. The treat was placed in an accessible and tempting location near the dog. The owner then left the room. A number of variables were alternated with each setup, like whether the owner knew the dog had eaten the treat or not. In one trial, the videographer gives the dog a treat and in another the owner is misled into thinking the dog has obeyed the command to leave the treat.
In Horowitz’ words:
“In many of the trials, the dogs could be models for the guilty look: they lower their gaze, press their ears back, slump their body, and shyly avert their head. Numerous tails beat a rapid rhythm low between their legs. Some raise a paw in appeasement or flick their tongue out nervously. But the guilt-ridden behaviors did not occur more often in the trials where the dogs had disobeyed than in those that had obeyed. Instead there were more guilty looks in the trials when the owner scolded the dog, whether the dog disobeyed or not. Being scolded despite resisting the disallowed treat led to an extra-guilty look.”
“…This indicated that the dog has associated the owner, not the act, with the imminent reprimand.”
Now back to Denver. View the video again. Listen to the man’s voice. Consider there is a camera in the dog’s face (drawing attention to him further). Is Denver feeling guilt over eating the cat treats a while ago? Or is he reacting to the immediate stimuli (his owner’s disappointed voice)? What do you think?