Owners who think that their dog has a "guilty look" are fooling themselves, according to a new study.
By Kate Devlin
Published: 7:00AM BST 13 Jun 2009
The penitent expressions some believe that they can spot on their pets' faces after they banish them to the doghouse are also a figment of their imagination, researchers found.
In one experiment, they told pet owners that their dogs were guilty of misbehaving by stealing treats that they had been specifically told they could not have.
Even though the animals were innocent owners still felt that they could "see" a look of guilt.
The researchers insist that there is no basis in owners' belief that they can read their pet’s body language.
They are merely projecting human values onto their animals, they said.
Some dogs "looked guilty" after they had been told off by their owners, the findings, published in the journal Behavioral Processes, also show.
Alexandra Horowitz, an assistant professor at Barnard College in New York, who carried out the research, said: "Given that discovery of, say, a stolen roast or garbage on the floor is often followed instantly by cries of alarm and scolding, it is not surprising that, in retrospect, owners would conflate the sources of dogs' resulting guilty looks.
"Merely uttering a dog's name with a rising, accusatory tone is often enough to elicit pre-emptive submissive behavior.
"The results indicate that the so-called guilty look is a response to owner scolding; it is not expressed more often when actually guilty."