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Hi all. I have a question about the "guilty look" that dogs offer after they do something wrong that everyone claims is not actually guilt but fear that we are angry with them and are about to deliver a horrible punishment. But first, a (what I fear will be a very long) story leading up to the event.

Hobbes has been with us for a little over a year. We got him from a local rescue when he was around a year old. We had a lot of work to do on training him when we got him, and we have always used positive reinforcement methods (unless you consider the word "No" to be an aversive, in which case mild positive punishment has also been employed from time to time. We have never used any of the dominance theory methods and Hobbes has never been hit or hurt or really punished (except the aforementioned, "No") in any way since he's been in our care.

We started out crating him anytime we weren't home, mainly as a precaution to protect our cats from his prey drive and inability to control his chasing impulses. Over time we started testing him by leaving him to have the run of the house for short periods, and eventually he got to the point where he had proven himself to be safe for our cats and our home, so he wasn't crated anymore, even if we were gone for extended periods (like an 8-hour workday). He never had any problems. He was never destructive, never chewed anything, never had potty accidents. He was the world's most perfect dog, frankly.

He is very attached to both my husband and me (not velcro or anxious, but likes to be near us all the time.) My husband often works from home and Hobbes is especially attached to him, since they spend so much time together. We have both always been very involved in his training and fun-time. He gets plenty of exercise and when he's home he's generally content to sleep or pad around the apartment contentedly.

Last month my husband was out of town for about 4-5 days. Everything else was business as usual. On the first day after he left, I took Hobbes for his morning walk and then left for work, leaving him uncrated as usual. When I came home at lunch to check on him, he had DESTROYED our apartment. He had chewed a pair of my boots to oblivion, had eaten a pair of bamboo knitting needles, and the top of a Nalgene water bottle (indestructible my *ss!), and had emptied the contents of the bathroom trash can all throughout the apartment. When I walked in the door I didn't notice the destruction right off. What I noticed immediately was that Hobbes didn't run to the door with his tail wagging in his usual affectionate doggy greeting. He was cowering in the living room, watching the door with his ears back and his tail tucked, looking for all the world like he was the most guilty dog in the universe. I didn't punish him or yell at him or even react, although by this point I did notice that he had torn up the place. I calmly put his leash on him and took him outside to pee. When we came back in I went about cleaning up the mess.

This happened again the next day when I left him. He was destructive and acted for all the world like he knew he had f*cked up even though he's never been punished for that, at least in the time we've had him.

We chalked it up to him being anxious because his daddy was gone, and moved on. For the rest of the time my husband was gone, I crated him for his safety. (Seriously, he ate my knitting needles and I found all kinds of crap in his poop later on - his safety was certainly at risk) When my husband came back from being out of town we tried leaving him uncrated again to see what would happen. That didn't go well, and he was destructive again. I am assuming that the destruction was reinforcing for him and he learned it was fun, so we went back to crating him whenever we're both gone.

Now, I have 2 questions. First, given that in all his time with us he has never been punished for destructive activity (in fact, he had never displayed destructive behavior until this time) how did he know something was wrong when I walked in the door? I mean, he had a classic "guilty" look and was clearly afraid to approach me. Is it possible that he remembers this sort of behavior from his home before he was in rescue and was punished for it then?

I don't know his history, except that he was in rescue for a few weeks before we adopted him, and before that he was in a shelter for a couple of months, where he was listed as an "owner surrender" with no reason given. It's possible that he was destructive in his old home, but I don't know.

My second question is this: how can we best experiment with leaving him uncrated again? Can we expect him to return to his normal docile self and not want to destroy things when we're gone, or are those halcyon days behind us now, since he found the destruction rewarding (apparently)? He doesn't seem to mind his crate - when we first got him we spent a lot of time crate-training him, so he's fine in there...but it seems nicer for him to be out if he can be trusted not to hurt himself or our things.

I'm really sorry about the novella I've posted; I know you're busy and don't have all day to read my story, but I do appreciate your time and any insight you can offer. Thanks!
 

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If I were that busy, I'd hardly be here! ;)

Guilt requires mens rea, which is, in normal person nonlawyer language, the presence of mind necessary to understand right from wrong. Dogs don't have mens rea. What they have is association.

The guilty look, which is actually a number of appeasement behaviors, is caused by one of two things:

1. You walk in, see the destruction and are upset. Maybe you aren't angry at the dog, but you are angry/upset and the dog can tell. Dogs are extraordinarily good at reading human emotion and equally bad at figuring out the cause. Because dogs don't have theory of mind*, they, like small children, tend to see themselves as the cause of everything, and naturally assume your anger/upset is aimed at them.

It's possible, that if you've come home to destruction enough, that you are tense every time you come home, and that's setting off the appeasement

2. The prior owner of the dog (in the cause of a rescue) did punish the dog for destruction, but not in the act. So the dog came to associate garbage on the floor, for example, with humans being angry and hurting the dog. The dog, lacking that kind of working short term memory, doesn't remember that he himself put the garbage on the floor, so only understands that garbage is on the floor, humans are angry, dog gets hurt/scared.

So you walk in and create the situation of garbage on floor + humans present and the dog goes into appeasement behaviors to stop you from hurting him.

*Theory of Mind is the understanding that you know things others don't know and that others know things you don't know. Humans don't start to develop it until 3 or 4, maybe later. Dogs don't have it at all.
 

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In my earlier days as a beginner, I walked home to my dog and a myriad of destroyed things. He was jumping all over the place at me all ramped up. He certainly wasn't "guilty" looking or anything like that, but rather very excited. Since I was a poor trainer with little understanding and self control at the time, I gave him a large punishment. I didn't think it was terribly harsh, but read on.

Some days later, my girlfriend comes home to similar destruction, and before she notices the destruction, she sees him cowering in the corner looking "guilty". She was convinced he "knew he did something wrong".

In my case, my dog was also a 1 y/o rescue when we got him, but based on our experience, it appears to not take much to teach the dog a negative association with crap all over the apartment and bad things happening. Who knows what happened before us, but in our case, it seemed just one time was enough to teach the association, and he didn't discriminate between people. I gave the punishment but he was still scared of the my gf. It's probably that when they hear the steps, they've already gone into fear mode.
 

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Discussion Starter #4
Thanks so much for the helpful replies! Any ideas for what to do now as far as "un-training" the destruction? It would be nice to not need to crate him again.

@qingcong: did your dog ever get over that fear association?
 

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How old is the dog? I couldn't trust Muggsy alone until he was over 2, and even then, I had to put a lot of stuff away first. You can help prevent destruction by walking the dog before leaving and leaving them with a stuffed, frozen kong to chew on, but some dogs just can't be trusted.

Could you could put her in bathroom instead of the crate? (Of course, move the toilet paper, garbage, etc. first)
 

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Usually we just crate the dog when we're gone, but one day I accidentally left the door open and I came home to the dog chilling downstairs. All was fine and he didn't give any sort of guilty or excited look. He's come a long way, and I think a lot of it is age and routine - we do the same thing everyday so it's not a big deal anymore. I videotaped him one time while we were gone, and he literally slept the entire time in his crate, aside from the Kong he was working on the beginning. Of course, you always want to follow proper training protocol and not making comings and goings a huge emotional ordeal, to keep everything low-key, and to desensitize dog to triggers like picking up the keys, grabbing jacket, and putting on shoes.



@qingcong: did your dog ever get over that fear association?
There were a ton of problems with him early on, including excitement AND "submission" peeing when we came home. The fear association was among a thousand issues. He has not shown any fear of us coming home at all for the past 3 years or so now. The fear/peeing thing lasted a few months while I was scrambling for answers on how to address it.
 

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Discussion Starter #7
How old is the dog? I couldn't trust Muggsy alone until he was over 2, and even then, I had to put a lot of stuff away first. You can help prevent destruction by walking the dog before leaving and leaving them with a stuffed, frozen kong to chew on, but some dogs just can't be trusted.

Could you could put her in bathroom instead of the crate? (Of course, move the toilet paper, garbage, etc. first)
He's a little over 2, we think. I always leave him with a frozen stuffed kong when he's in his crate, but stopped doing that when I quit crating him b/c it was always a special crate-only treat. Next time I try leaving him out, I'll leave him one and see if that helps.

I could put him in the bathroom, but it would require changing things around since the cat litter box is in there so the cat needs access. Also, the bathroom is barely bigger than his crate and wouldn't be much of an upgrade :). Apartment living.
 

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Discussion Starter #8
Usually we just crate the dog when we're gone, but one day I accidentally left the door open and I came home to the dog chilling downstairs. All was fine and he didn't give any sort of guilty or excited look. He's come a long way, and I think a lot of it is age and routine - we do the same thing everyday so it's not a big deal anymore. I videotaped him one time while we were gone, and he literally slept the entire time in his crate, aside from the Kong he was working on the beginning. Of course, you always want to follow proper training protocol and not making comings and goings a huge emotional ordeal, to keep everything low-key, and to desensitize dog to triggers like picking up the keys, grabbing jacket, and putting on shoes.
I never had to do too much desensitization in his early days with us, we just crate-trained him so he wouldn't drive the neighbors crazy with barking, and then when we stopped crating he never had any problems with us leaving, so I never really bothered with the whole "jacket, picking up keys, putting on shoes" desensitization. I wonder if I should just go back to basics and start with that stuff now...
 

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Set him up for success. Yes, in the past, you may have been able to leave him uncrated, but, the stress of missing daddy may have changed that temporarily. At least on two occasions. So, set him up for success. Shut the bathroom door so he can't get to the trash, put your boots away, put your water bottle in the cupboard or cabinet, etc. Don't leave anything out for him to get, except his toys.

We leave in a tiny, and I mean tiny 1940s cottage. There is not much room for storage. So, this has been an issue for my fiance. He has a hard time putting things back in their assigned spot. Since we don't have much storage, putting things away is hard, it takes effort. BUT, we have a shoe crazy chihuahua-dachshund mix. So, shoes HAVE to go away. To her, shoes look no different than any of her chew toys.

Now, our first dog had no problems with chewing shoes, or anything else for that matter. He was a dream, could be uncrated, and the house would be fine. When we added Abby to our family, we all of a sudden had to get much neater. :)

This could be just temporary, and once things settle down, things could be back to normal. You may find you can leave stuff out again. BUT, because of the past two occasions when he destroyed stuff, if you continue leaving stuff out, you are just setting him up to fail.

As for the "look", I agree, dogs are super adept at reading our emotions. If you were upset, he knew it. OR, it was because HE himself was stressed about daddy being gone. But, guilt? No.
 

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Discussion Starter #10
doxiemommy: Great ideas! I think you're right on - set him up for success. Next time I try leaving him out I'll make sure to put everything away and not stay gone too long.

And I know you're all right about the guilt - obviously dogs don't have theory of mind and don't have the self-awareness that emotions like guilt require. It just seems so far-fetched that he could remember consequences that happened when he was in his former home. (I'm thinking when I walked in that he couldn't have read my negative emotions because he was acting that way before I even noticed the mess.)

Thanks for all the help!
 
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