How Reliable Are Our Perceptions of Our Cat or Dog’s Feelings?

Dogs looking sheepish and showing signs of being guilty
Dogs looking sheepish and showing signs of being guilty. Photo Tony Alter.
Until September 7th I will give 10 cents to an animal charity for every comment. It is a way to help animal welfare without much effort at no cost. Comments help this website too, which is about animal welfare.

Are our perceptions of how our cat or dog is feeling unreliable? Do we unknowingly anthropomorphise their behaviour? A study in America reached the conclusion that it was in anticipation of punishment by a dog’s owner which led the dog to put on a guilty look. Whereas from the owner’s perspective, when their dog has a guilty look they are less likely to dispense punishment which is the reason, in the first place, why the dog has the guilty look. The dog has learned that this sort of facial expression is advantageous. It reduces the possibility of punishment and it is associated with submissive behavior.

In other words scientists are saying that a dog’s display of guilt is a fake. The dog is in effect conning the human caretaker into behaving in a more advantageous way towards him or her by playing on his feelings. In addition, as a way for a dog to avoid punishment, a guilty look is also a form of submissive behavior, Alexandra Horowitz, an associate professor at Columbia University in New York and author of Inside of a Dog, states.

In an Hungarian study, which took place more recently, one of the study’s researchers says that owners interpreted a dog’s behaviour as if he or she were a small child rather than in animal terms. I know that that is very possible because I do it myself with my cats. I fight against it.

A dog will put on this guilty look, indicating an admission of guilt, during times of stress. They are fear-induced interactions and the dog’s appearance is an attempt to appease the owner who may be cross with them.

In addition, so-called bad dog behaviour (causing the fake guilt) is masking the core issue which is that it is the sort of behaviour which people don’t like due to dog boredom, fear or anxiety. In addition, scalding dogs after they have been bad does not decrease the behavior which the human has deemed to be bad.

I wonder how this research and these conclusions impact upon cat owners’ perception and interaction with their cats? These findings seem to be saying that people have great difficulty in dissociating themselves from treating their cats and dogs as children and in doing so misinterpret signals from them or interpret them in a way which is based upon human behaviour rather than purely on animal terms.

I’m sure that we have to be careful when we try to interpret the behaviour of our cat. I’ve always felt that we should always interpret our cat’s behaviour by reference to their wild cat ancestor, the North African wildcat while acknowledging that the domestic cat has become quite sociable and not so solitary. We should perhaps ask outselves. “what would the wild cat do and why?”. This may be too scientific an approach but it will always be a good starting point and it will always put a barrier between us and our desire to relate to our cats as children.

Some time ago I wrote an article about a study which indicated that cats ignore us and then there was another article in which the study concluded that cats meow as a demand for food. Our cats do not have the same need and desire to be loved as we do. What motivates the cat is more to do with hard nature and natural instincts whereas humans have what might be regarded as a weakness in the eyes of the wild cat, the need to be loved by another, the need for reassurance, the need to be liked which is reflected in their relationship with their domestic cat companions in anthropomorphizing them as children.

3 thoughts on “How Reliable Are Our Perceptions of Our Cat or Dog’s Feelings?”

  1. I don’t think so called experts know as much as those of us who have always shared our lives with animals know.
    Why analyse everything to the nth degree, why not just accept cats are cats and dogs are dogs, instead of trying to transpose human facial expressions onto them?
    No animal is bad, nor guilty, they are just doing what is natural to their species.
    Living together as a family the humans and the pets in it don’t actually needs words or expressions to understand each other, we just need to live and let live and accept each other as the different species we are.

  2. Michael, it seems apparent to me that those of us who stay w/PoC, regardless of our schedules, are quiet perceptive when it comes to our “lower-species” mammalian children. But, as I remember that you are quite sensitive to anthropomorphism, and justly so, I feel–no, I know– that we need to be on guard to this (mindful). If we live in the moment with our fellow species, then it only seems right to be mindful of those automatic thoughts that can (and do) take place in each and every waking hour.

    It is so good to come back to your site, thank you for always being here for us! <3

  3. Don’t care what any experts say. We are all perceptive and correct 90% of the time. We are pretty much mind readers and can anticipate.


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