Does your dog get sheepish? Pretty much everyone has felt embarrassed at some point. It’s easy to assume that our dogs do too. But the question is actually still a matter of debate. Although some researchers are sure that dogs feel embarrassed, others think it’s mostly just human projection.
To understand why there’s still a debate, we need to look a little deeper at dog emotions.
Simple vs Complex Emotions
When it comes to emotions, research has come a long way. Today, pretty much everyone who’s researched dog behavior agrees that they feel some simple emotions—that include happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. These emotions seem to be universal. But there’s a lot more debate about more complex emotions, including embarrassment.
Unlike a lot of emotions, embarrassment isn’t just a straight emotional reaction to a situation. It requires a lot of other things to come in place. Embarrassment is super closely tied with social awareness and a sense of self. When you feel embarrassed, you out of place because you just broke a social rule. And researchers are pretty split on whether dogs have a similar enough understanding of social norms to humans to be able to feel embarrassed. So far, no one has been able to prove it one way or another.
The Problem with Studying Embarrassment
Part of the problem with studying emotions in animals is that we don’t have a great way to study these emotions directly. Most studies of dog emotions rely on interpreting behavior, and the more complex an emotion is, the harder it is to isolate. Humans have a bias toward anthropomorphizing—that’s interpreting animals and things as more human than they are. And most embarrassing behaviors can have more than one interpretation.
Let’s look at two common situations that are often interpreted as embarrassment. First, you’re coming home, and your dog runs to greet you, only to slip and fall on the way. It’s not hurt, but it runs off to sulk and hide. Second, imagine that you’ve just told your dog off for stealing food from the counter. You look away for a second and turn back around to see that it’s at it again. Your dog makes eye contact and immediately backs off, whining and ducking his head.
Both situations might make you think your dog is embarrassed, but that’s not the only way to interpret them. In the first situation, your dog might just be upset about hurting itself. It might also have interpreted the fall as more dangerous than it was and want to rest and “heal up.” Or it might be hiding because it is afraid now.
In the second scenario, your dog knows that it did something wrong. You feel embarrassed when you get caught breaking social norms and become ashamed of your behavior. But your dog might just be reacting to getting caught and trying to avoid punishment. And over time, dogs might actually learn what reactions are most likely to make a human laugh or empathize instead of meting out punishment. This can lead to “fake embarrassment” that’s not indicative of how your dog is actually feeling.
So, What’s the Verdict?
With all the research that’s been done on dogs and emotions, the jury is still out on embarrassment. Dogs definitely have behaviors that they do to express that they’re upset when something goes wrong. They also can learn what good and bad behavior are, and many dogs have specific reactions to being caught doing something naughty.
But does that mean that dogs have enough of a social consciousness to really feel embarrassed? Or is it a more basic emotional reaction combined with a bit of learned behavior? You’ll have to come to your own conclusion.
Featured Image Credit: san4ezz, Shutterstock