The behavior people interpret as dog guilt is more likely just a reaction to subtle cues from their owners, a study concludes.

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WASHINGTON — Many dog owners have had this experience: Arriving home, they discover their pooch looking sheepish, with its head down, ears pulled back, tail tucked between the legs, maybe slinking behind the sofa. They soon discover the reason: a favorite pair of shoes chewed to pieces, or perhaps a garbage can upended.

But is their canine companion acting guilty? Or is this an example of people projecting a human emotion onto their four-legged friend?

A new study concludes it is more likely the latter: The behavior people interpret as dog guilt is more likely just a reaction to subtle cues from their owners.

“I’m not denying that people have had that experience; I have had it myself,” said Alexandra Horowitz, an assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College in New York who conducted the study published in the July issue of the journal Behavioural Processes. “But I don’t think we can say it’s because the dogs are showing guilt.”

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She devised an experiment involving 14 owners and their dogs — six males and eight females, including six mutts, a Brussels griffon, a Tibetan terrier, a cockapoo, a Shih Tzu, a wheaten terrier, two dachshunds and a Labrador retriever.

Horowitz asked each owner to show the dog a biscuit, instruct the dog not to eat it and leave the room. While the owner was gone, Horowitz either allowed the dog to eat the treat or removed it. The owner returned and was told the dog had obeyed the command or had been disobedient and had eaten the biscuit. Owners scolded the disobedient dogs. But half the time, the owners were told the truth about whether their dog had misbehaved while the other half were misled.

And this is the surprising thing: The dogs that had obeyed were just as likely as the ones that did not to exhibit one of nine behaviors associated with the “guilty look”: dropping their head, pulling their ears back, avoiding eye contact, rolling over onto their side or back, dropping their tails, quickly wagging a lowered tail, licking their lips, offering a paw or slinking away.

Horowitz found that the pooches were most likely to show such behaviors when their owner believed they had disobeyed and scolded them.

“The most guilty look was when the owner scolded an innocent dog,” she said. “It was a bit surprising.”

Horowitz concluded that such behavior is most likely the result of subtle cues that dogs picked up from their owners that make them anticipate punishment, rather than the dogs feeling guilty.

The dogs most likely to exhibit the behaviors in response to being scolded were those that had gone through obedience training, she said.

Horowitz stressed that her experiment “doesn’t mean dogs don’t feel guilty. When they are playing together, they have a code of behavior and can distinguish right from wrong. … But I can’t claim to know what they are feeling.”

Some researchers said that while the study was well done and provocative, they remained uncertain how conclusive it was.

“I think the take-home message is that a guilty look doesn’t necessarily mean the dog did something,” said Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus of animal behavior at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He noted, however, that research indicates people are fairly accurate at interpreting animals’ emotions: “There is very high agreement about the emotions people attribute to animals, and they are correct much of the time.”

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