Innocent Until Proven Guilty
Recently I read an article from the Telegraph about dogs’ guilty looks and how they might not always be a sure sign that they’ve done something wrong. Reading it confirmed my thought process during a situation we experienced with our boxer mix, Sally, during her transition from her foster home to her forever home with us.
I walk back into my office after returning home from grocery shopping, and Sally immediately drops her head low to her bed, guilt written all over her face. My eyebrow arches, and I start walking around the house to see what trouble she had gotten into while we were gone. The trash bin is still standing upright and unscathed, and the cats’ dish is still full of kibble. Nothing at all seems out of place. I’m left scratching my head.
That scene repeated itself over and over at our house for a few weeks. I couldn’t figure out why she was acting so guilty. I wondered if she was doing something that wasn’t as obvious as getting into the trash or eating cat poop, but there was absolutely no evidence to support that. As animal lovers, I know you can relate when I say that I don’t want my dog to be fearful in any way. I want her to be happy, so I knew it was my responsibility to figure out what was going on and handle it.
It took me a while to realize that an incident that occurred within her first few weeks with us had rubbed her the wrong way. On that day, we left her alone at the house and did some grocery shopping. It was the first time we’d left her alone for more than half an hour. We’d been giving her time to get used to her new surroundings since she’s such a sensitive dog. Up until then we’d only gone out for quick jaunts here and there.
When we got back, the trash had been knocked over and its contents scattered all over the place. I scolded Sally for it, and she tucked her tail and ran for the hills. I remember being shocked at her reaction, since she’s always so happy-go-lucky and hadn’t had any problems being corrected before. I didn’t realize it at that time, but that moment became etched in her memory as “Mommy comes home. I get in trouble.” Because it wasn’t such a big deal to me at the time, I didn’t connect her continuing guilty looks with the trash incident. I had simply picked up the trash and moved on.
Sally had not…
Once I understood the issue at hand, I felt like a complete jerk for not taking her personality into consideration when I let her know that knocking over the trash was a “no-no.” But, feeling like a jerk wasn’t going to accomplish anything, so I began working on the solution. I knew that she needed to have positive experiences to change her mind set.
We started by giving her a treat before leaving the house, and didn’t make a big deal out of leaving. Then, when we got home, we’d greet her in happy tones and ignore her guilty looks. If we found she had gotten into something while we were gone, we dealt with it after the initial greeting (we block the trash so she can’t get to it now – no point in setting her up for failure). It took weeks for her to greet us happily when we come home without any fearful hesitation. But now she’s even to the point where she snoozes so hard while we’re gone that she’s often too comfy to come greet us! She’s much more relaxed about it overall.
So, the next time your dog gives you a guilty look, think twice before you respond to it. They may be perfectly innocent. If you’re currently dealing with a situation similar to ours, take some time to think it through and do whatever works for you and your dogs to change their negative associations into positive ones.