“Do dogs get embarrassed” is a question that doesn’t have a simple and straightforward answer. Most dog owners would say, without a shadow of doubt, that their pooch gets embarrassed when he does something wrong and gets caught. Others might say that they have seen their dog get embarrassed when interacting with other dogs and would give some really good examples about what happened. In fact, many owners argue, that when experiencing embarrassment, their dogs would lower their ears, look away, and sometimes put the tail between their legs. But is that embarrassment or some other feeling?
Primary and secondary emotions
Embarrassment is often referred to as a secondary emotion ( that forms in reaction to another emotion) that is strictly connected to self-consciousness and social humiliation. According to animal behaviorist Dr. Terri Bright, dogs cannot have complex feelings such as embarrassment, because they would have to be aware of social norms and morals like humans, but they just don’t have this kind of knowledge. She explains that what people think is an embarrassed dog is probably a dog experiencing fear and giving appeasement signals.
So, if your pooch turns her head away or doesn’t look you in the eye this isn’t because she is feeling ashamed, but she just fears for the consequences of her actions. Fear is, in fact, a primary emotion together with happiness, anger, and sadness. Primary emotions, even for humans, are an immediate reaction to something that has happened; like when you get bad news and you immediately feel sad. Primary emotions are very instinctual and closely connected to survival; no doubt that dogs have these kind of feelings.
Emotions are not only human
Not all scientists, though, have the same outlook on whether a dog can get embarrassed. Dr. Marc Bekoff, professor of ethology and biology at the University of Colorado and author of The Emotional Lives of Animals, states that dogs are capable of feeling complex emotions, such as embarrassment. After a lifetime spent studying all kind of animals, Bekoff suggests that dogs have a moral intelligence and clear emotions.
He has observed, during years of research, that dogs are capable of feeling emotions such as fairness, trust, empathy, and reciprocity. Bekoff is sure that humans are not the only animals who experience complex feelings, but many other species, such as dogs, demonstrate to have an emotional and moral intelligence. Bekoff explains in many of his books, that dogs live by strict social rules that are essential to their survival. In order to follow these rules correctly, dogs have developed the ability to feel secondary emotions, as well as primary ones.
Embarrassment in dogs is not easy to spot
Not all scientists though converge on this idea. Most are convinced that dogs have emotions, but it is really impossible to say if they get embarrassed like humans do. They are convinced that there is no way of understanding if a dog’s submissive behavior is performed for embarrassment, fear, or some other emotion. Unfortunately, we cannot ask our pooch what he is feeling, so we can only guess. The idea that many scientists share is that dogs have emotions based on instant-reactions, so a complex emotion such as embarrassment is not part of their way of feeling.
Treating a dog as a child
Molly Sumridge, dog behaviour trainer and founder of Kindred Companions in Frenchtown, NJ, thinks that not enough studies have been done about complex emotions in dogs. She thinks that it is a mistake to explain dog emotions with human ones, because we are too different. There is the risk of anthropomorphizing dogs and complicating our relationship with them.
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human behavior and characteristics to animals and consequently treating them as if they were humans too. This way of treating dogs is quite widespread nowadays and it can be summed up by the fact that there are no longer pet owners, but pet parents. While it can seem harmless to treat a pooch like he shares the same emotions of a child, this way of living can be quite stressful for a dog. The way a dog feels can be misinterpreted by the owner and this can lead him to develop high levels of anxiety.
According to numerous behavioral experts, anxiety is a very common emotion in dogs that are treated like children by their owners. Dogs need rules to be happy! They love routine and boundaries. What can happen when there is anthropomorphisation is a lack of these limitations, which will, inevitably, make the dog feel insecure. So, treating a dog as if she has human emotions can undermine the owner’s leadership role, which is indispensable for a dog’s well-being.
In recent years, a new science has developed, canine cognition, which aims to study the way dogs think and how their brain can be compared to the human one. Thanks to MRI studies, it appears that a dog’s brain isn’t all that different to a human one. They are in fact structurally similar and the same areas of the brain light up when exposed to stimuli. Dog brains are, though, smaller than human brains; they are the size of a lemon for big dogs and much smaller for little dogs. In addition, human prefrontal cortex, where the main thinking process is done, is much more developed.
Dr. Jill Sackman, a clinician in behavioral medicine and senior medical director of BluePearl Veterinary Partners’ Michigan hospitals, is one of the main experts in canine cognition. She has performed a large number of MRI studies that confirm the existence of an emotional intelligence in dogs. When she was asked her opinion on dog embarrassment, she said that it is too soon to say if dogs feel this emotion the same way humans do.
The MRI studies have proven that dogs can feel happiness, fear, anxiety, optimism and depression. Dr. Sackman said that canine cognition is a very new science and it needs more time to explore the complex feelings of dogs. It is not easy to recreate stimuli that would make a dog feel embarrassed while in an MRI. The same goes for other emotions that a dog could possibly feel, such as guilt or shame. Nevertheless, in a few years we will probably be able to answer in a much more complete way to the question “do dogs feel embarrassed”, but for the moment it still is a very open matter.