Have you ever come home to find that your dog has destroyed your shoes, or emptied the trash all over the floor, or eliminated in the house, or did some other unacceptable behavior? And, as soon as you walk in, your dog gets that “guilty” look? You know the one, head and eyes averted, tail tucked, body slinked down. This is the look that causes owners to report, “he knows what he did”. We hear this all the time but in truth, what your dog “knows” is not what you think it is.
When we come home to discover that our dog has misbehaved, often our initial reaction is one of anger and/or frustration and our behavior conveys this emotion to the dog. Some owners shout out (or swear!) in an angry tone of voice, some will take the evidence to the dog and ask “did you do this???”, Some may resort to other forms of punishment. Whatever our action, it is usually not a pleasant one for the dog, and we can see that the dog knows it is in trouble by the guilty looks it gives us. But that is not the whole story.
Dogs are expert at reading us. They know that when we are happy, good things happen for the dog (or at least nothing bad usually happens). They also know when we are mad, and they know that in that situation, it is best to lay low. They know this because of the many associations they have made during their time living with humans; we laugh, we pet the dog, dog is content; we yell, we scare (and confuse) the dog, dog learns when we yell that it should stay away.
So what is happening when we yell at our dog for digging through the trash, is that the dog, having lived through this scenario before, knows that nothing good is going to happen (and in some cases, something really bad does happen), so it shows us those “guilt” signs. But those signs are not guilt, but rather an effort on the part of the dog to show its submissiveness to us in the hopes that things won’t get worse for the dog. Being human and understanding the concept of guilt, we assume by the dog’s behavior that he “knows” what he did wrong, but in reality, he is trying to convey to the angry human “I won’t hurt you so please don’t hurt me”. Then, we often make matters worse by further yelling at the dog (or worse) because to us it is obvious that he knows what he did and by punishing him thusly, he will learn not to do it again. The poor dog then becomes even guiltier looking because his attempts to appease us by being submissive didn’t work so he becomes even more submissive in his appearance. But the poor dog has no idea WHY we are mad. He can’t comprehend that the act he did earlier in the day (or even 5 minutes ago) is why we are now threatening him.
This is an example of how we humans project our behavior onto our dogs and assume that they “think” the same way. We think our delayed punishment (i.e., yelling or punishing the dog after the fact) works because every time we come home to find he has misbehaved once again, he immediately gets that “I know what I did” look. So we keep punishing the dog. But if our punishment really worked, that is, if the dog really knew that what he did was wrong, he would stop doing it. But he doesn’t, does he? That is because he doesn’t make the connection between the punishment and his crime. The only way that will happen is if you actually catch him in the act and punish at that exact moment. Dogs make associations between things that happen together, not hours later. So, when you come home and he looks guilty, what he is really doing is associating trash on the floor (or a chewed up remote, etc), with your angry behavior and he tries to appease you by being submissive (looking guilty) to avoid the anticipated outburst from you. (If you want to test this out, put some trash (or the chewed up remote, or feces, or whatever it is that you have been yelling at your dog for) in a room without your dog’s knowledge. Then walk him into the room and do your usual “DID YOU DO THIS” response, and watch your dog. Odds are he will immediately “look guilty” and he didn’t even do anything!).
Moral of the story is punish only if you catch your dog in the act (and then only to the extent needed to make the dog stop; that is, if a firm “NO” stops the dog, that is all you need to do. Once the dog stops misbehaving, stop your reprimand/punishment). Otherwise, just remove the dog from the room, clean up the mess, and vow to set up better management next time so it doesn’t happen again.