What dogs actually mean when they look guilty, according to science

If you've ever yelled at a dog, you've seen it: A pooch bowed low with big eyes, perhaps surrounded by torn-up couch cushions, ruined food or urine stains. It's the stuff "dog shaming" memes are made of.

Such canine cowering, though, actually evolved as a complex survival tactic among their wolf relatives. Animal behaviorists call it an "apology bow."

Nathan H. Lents, a molecular biologist with the City University of New York, wrote in Psychology Today that young wolves show apology bows as they begin social integration. Wolves engage in the same rough-and-tumble play as dogs do, he said, which becomes a laboratory for learning the pack's social rules.

If a playful wolf bites too hard, the animal will be spurned by the pack for bad behavior, Lent explained. In order to return to the social unit, he said, the wolf must approach with an apology bow. The same goes for dogs.

"Dogs have inherited this behavior and they will use it after any kind of infraction that results in being punished," Lents wrote. "As social animals, they crave harmonious integration in the group and neglect or isolation is painful for them."

A dog in deep doo doo will stop panting, lower his head to avoid contact and put his tail between his legs, Lents said, mimicking the actions of a lower-ranking wolf submitting to a more dominant one.

A psychology professor at New York City's Barnard College conducted one of the first studies on the "guilty dog look" in 2009, and found the look appeared most often when owners scolded their dogs — regardless of whether the dog had disobeyed.

So it's more an act of submission than a direct apology or expression of guilt, Lents noted, but it basically boils down to this: "Can we be friends again?"

Follow Josh Hafner on Twitter: @joshhafner

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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