Funny guilty dog phenomena hits home

On March 8, 2011, a rather plump yellow Lab named Dexter decided to get into the cat treats. Unfortunately, he failed to clean up the evidence. His owner discovered the tattered Friskies bag on the floor and decided he’d film Dexter’s guilty reaction. The resulting video has been viewed more than 33 million times on YouTube.

Dexter, born and raised on the eastern shore of Maryland, now has his own website, www.guiltydogadventures.com, and children’s book series. His famous video has appeared on national TV shows such as “Good Morning America” and “Inside Edition.” And many people, after seeing the video, decided to tape their own guilty dogs, which they then uploaded to the internet.

Three years later, I jumped on the bandwagon.

My dog Oreo, a pit bull mix with the potential to wreck house (quite literally), has always been a remarkably good boy when it comes to staying home alone. We used to keep him in a kennel as a puppy, but over time he’s proved to us that he isn’t going to eat the couch or raid the sock drawer. So now we give him free reign of the house while we’re out. However, he’s not perfect, and sometimes, he sticks his nose in things (again, quite literally) that he shouldn’t.

So one day, I came home to quite a mess — trash all over the kitchen. (If you’re a dog owner, you’ve probably been there.) There was really only one suspect, but even if we owned several dogs, I would have been able to tell that Oreo was the culprit. He was pathetically obvious, crouching in the corner, tail thumping nervously, head down, ears pinned to his head, sad eyes. Oh, Oreo.

Lights, camera, action.

I could only film my “guilty dog” for a short while before I started to feel bad. He looked so nervous. What was wrong with him? I’d never hurt him, but he was acting as if I would strike him at any minute. Is this normal?

Well, according to the many guilty dog videos now on the Internet, yes. A lot of dogs act like it’s the end of the world when they’ve done something they know is wrong — like get into the trash. They cower, roll on their backs, whine, refuse to look at you, hang their heads and attempt to hide. My favorite guilty dog videos are of dogs walking painfully slow, as if thinking, “If I walk really slowly, no one will see me.” (See this in the video below at 1:40 and 7:30.)

Are these dogs really feeling guilty? Well, according to Dr. Jason G. Goldman, who studied evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals, there’s plenty of evidence of primary emotions, such as happiness and fear, in animals. Guilt, however, is what scientists consider a secondary emotion — more complex.

Oreo looking especially guilty.

Oreo looking especially guilty.

“Empirical evidence for secondary emotions like jealousy, pride, and guilt, is extremely rare in the animal cognition literature,” wrote Goldman in the 2012 article “Do Dogs Feel Guilt?” published in Scientific American.

Nevertheless, behaviors associated with guilt — keeping keeping one’s head down and averting one’s gaze — have been observed in some social animals such as monkeys, wolves and domestic dogs. In fact, this phenomena has noted by the famous Charles Darwin.

(If Darwin were alive today, I’m sure he’d be fascinated by the wealth of “guilty dog” videos on YouTube.)

“This should not be too surprising,” Goldman wrote. “Guilt serves to reinforce social relationships and to minimize the effects of transgressions against social partners.”

In other words, in a dog pack, the ability to express guilt would be useful in maintaining harmony. For example, in a dog pack, the alpha dog is typically the strongest. If a pack member enrages the alpha — by stealing food or otherwise misbehaving — the ability to express guilt would be valuable in that scenario. Perhaps a proper display of guilt (or subservience) would placate the alpha dog.

Before I wander farther into the world of hypothetical situations and Darwinism, I’m going to throw an opinion out there: I believe that dogs and many other animals are capable of a wide range of emotions. And I have no problem basing this opinion on anecdotal evidence rather than scientific experiments.

After cleaning up the garbage strewn about my kitchen, I walked into the living room to find an empty tupperware on the floor. It appeared that Oreo had indulged in some chicken corn chowder — or whatever scraps had been left on the tupperware he had stolen from the sink. (I couldn’t really blame him. My mom’s corn chowder is delicious.)

Oreo, who saw me pick up the tupperware, hid under the kitchen table. Again entertained by his display of guilt, I walked over and sat beside the table. Eventually, Oreo realized I wasn’t going away, so he crept out, slowly climbed on my lap and covered my face in “kisses” — a gesture of affection and respect, according to what I’ve read. I rubbed his back in return, and for Oreo, all was right in the world again.

It’s impossible to act mad at a guilty dog — which leads to me to think that dogs are a whole lot smarter than we give them credit for.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.