Why ‘Guilty’ Dogs Hang Their Heads In Shame

Your dog’s “guilty” look is rooted in social behavior among wolves.

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Our dogs are asking if they can be friends with us again when they give us the guilty look aka "apology bow." Ksuksa/iStock/Thinkstock
Stephanie Brown

You know that look your dog gives you when he’s done something bad? The “guilty” face? The “I’m so ashamed, don’t look at me” face? He actually inherited it from his wolf ancestors.

Nathan H. Lents, a molecular biology professor at the City University of New York, wrote in Psychology Today that young wolves show so-called “apology bows” as they begin social integration.

Besides nursing, the first social interaction that wolves engage in is play — the type of rough-and-tumble play you often see puppies engage in. If a wolf bites too hard during this rough play, he is punished by being temporarily shunned. In order to be reintroduced to the social group, Lents explained, the shunned wolf must approach with an apology bow. The wolf will hang his head low, stop panting or smiling, avoid eye-contact and put his tail between his legs.

A wolf that plays too rough is shunned until he asks for an apology from the group by exhibiting what we think of as “guilty” behavior. lightstock/iStock/Thinkstock

“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.”

So basically they’re afraid we’ll stop loving them and this is how they try to make things right. Great! As if we didn’t already feel bad enough when they make that face.

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