Live with a dog, and you have most likely met the “guilty look.” You come home. The plants are knocked over, and soil is tracked all over the floor. The dog is abnormally still and averts its gaze as it thumps its tail slowly.

But does the dog feel responsible for the mess and sorry about having disobeyed your rules? That is hard to say. Research to date, including an open-access study published earlier this year, suggests that the answer is no. Moreover, the findings reveal that scolding or punishing dogs will not necessarily decrease unwanted behavior.

Owners asked to describe a dog's guilty look comment that, in addition to potentially freezing, looking away and thumping their tails, the dog may try to look smaller and assume a nonthreatening pose. Some might lift a paw or approach the owner in a low posture. Others retreat.

It is tempting to think that if a dog acts much as we do when we feel guilty, then the dog must also understand that its behavior was wrong and feel guilty. Yet these are the same actions that animal behavior researchers and experts describe as reflective of submission, appeasement, anxiety or fear. Such displays are employed by social species, such as dogs and wild gray wolves, in many different contexts to reduce conflict, diffuse tension and reinforce social bonds.

When we investigators create experiments to better understand dogs' conceptual frameworks, we often find that although their actions might look much like those of people, their understanding of a situation might differ. In this case, it is possible that rather than guilt operating when your dog puts on a guilty face, the pooch may actually be experiencing general anxiety or fear or a desire to avoid being on the wrong end of your anger or frustration.

In 2009 Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College (and author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know) published a study in Behavioural Processes that explored the events preceding the seemingly guilty look. By varying both the dog's behavior (either eating or not eating a disallowed treat) and the owner's behavior (either scolding or not scolding), she was able to isolate what the look was associated with. She found that it did not appear more when the dogs had done something wrong. Instead it popped out in full form when the owner scolded. Horowitz further found that when dogs were reprimanded, the most exaggerated guilty look was displayed by the dogs that had not eaten the treat but were reprimanded anyway (because the owner thought the dog had eaten it). That means, for example, that in a multidog household, a dog could easily look guilty without ever having transgressed.

I found a similar result in a follow-up experiment that I conducted with Ádám Miklósi and Márta Gácsi of the Family Dog Project at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science in 2012. Dogs had the opportunity to break a rule (that food on a table is for humans and not dogs) while owners were out of the room. When the owners returned, dogs that ate were not more likely to look guilty than those that abstained. In this context, the guilty look was not present without a scolding owner. We also looked at whether owners are better able than others to tell when their dogs have been disobedient. Owners who had seen their companions adhere to the rule were not better at identifying that the dogs had transgressed in their absence.

“But wait!” the peanut gallery cries. “I have seen my dog act guilty before it is scolded.” Owners often do interpret such behavior to mean that dogs “know” they have done wrong. This is a complicated issue, but findings to date suggest that dogs engage in guilty-seeming behavior when they sense that something will elicit an owner's displeasure and hope to avoid a breach in the relationship.

Earlier this year Ljerka Ostoji´c and Nicola Clayton of the University of Cambridge and Mladenka Tkalci´c of the University of Rijeka in Croatia reported in Behavioural Processes on research into whether a dog's guilty look could be triggered by environmental cues, such as the disappearance of a forbidden food. By using a manipulation somewhat similar to that of Horowitz, Ostoji´c and her colleagues found that the guilty look was not affected by the dog's own behavior (either eating or not eating the food) or whether the food was present or absent. In their experimental context, dogs did not display the guilty look in the absence of a scolding owner.

At the same time, the study does not exclude the possibility that in the home environment, owners may very well observe the infamous look prior to scolding. In the late 1970s a veterinarian in Wisconsin published a paper offering a clear example of fear masquerading as guilt. A dog called Nicki had taken to shredding paper in the owner's absence. To see if the dog's guilty-seeming behavior actually stemmed from guilt, the veterinarian had the owner shred paper, leave the house and return home. When the owner came back, Nicki looked “guilty,” even though she had done nothing wrong. Dogs are incredibly sensitive to environmental and social cues. In this case, the dog apparently viewed the paper on the floor as a sign of a scolding to come.

“Evidence + Owner = Trouble,” explains primatologist Frans B. M. de Waal, in Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. As a social species aiming to maintain relationships, dogs could show submissive displays before an owner scolds without the behavior indicating an apology or admittance of guilt. Instead these displays can aim to appease or pacify. And they certainly could have that effect: in one study, I found that nearly 60 percent of owners surveyed on a questionnaire reported that the “guilty look” led them to scold their dog less.

You may wonder why I and others harp on the misattribution of a sense of guilt in dogs. As I have said online in The Dodo, this is an issue of dog welfare: “When you get angry or forgive your ‘guilty’ dog for demolishing your house, you ignore deeper concerns that, if addressed, could reduce or eliminate those behavior problems. Was the dog bored? Scared? Anxious? Did something change in your routine that confused it? Sadly, scolding dogs often does not decrease future undesirable behavior. If anything, the ‘guilty look’ could just become more exaggerated over time as your confused companion enters an anxious cycle of destruction and appeasement.”

Even worse, scolding a guilty-looking dog after the fact could give you a false sense of mutual understanding and the incorrect belief that you are punishing the bad behavior effectively. A punishment, by definition, decreases the behavior in the future. Unfortunately, studies find that scolding a “disobedient” dog, especially after it misbehaves, does not lead to a notable decrease in the “bad” behavior. A study from the late 1960s found that dogs reprimanded just 15 seconds after performing a “disallowed” behavior not only continued to perform the behavior in the future but did so while showing notable appeasement and fear-related behaviors.

Essentially beratement after the fact did not work, and the guilty look is better interpreted as fear or appeasement. Best to just clean up the mess and think about how to avoid it in the future.