Dogs are simple creatures, but that doesn't stop us from projecting a whole array of complex emotions onto them. Still, sometimes it can be hard to shake the feeling that your dog is, well, feeling a really specific emotion like embarrassment. Sometimes dogs just look so embarrassed, it's hard to imagine that they're feeling anything else. Is embarrassment even a feeling dogs have though? Let's break it down.
Can dogs feel embarrassed?
Let's start with the basics: Are dogs even capable of feeling the emotion we know as embarrassment? To answer that, we need to delve into what embarrassment is. Embarrassment is a negative emotion we feel when we violate the social norms. We're embarrassed when we trip in public not because we think tripping is a terrible thing to do, but because we're worried about what others will think. This is what makes embarrassment different from emotions like shame or guilt, which arise when we do something that goes against our moral code. That's why you might feel terrible for cheating on a test even if you never get caught.
"For a dog to feel embarrassment, they would need to possess an overall sense of social norms and morals, which they don't have the same way humans do," Dr. Terri Bright, director of behavior services in the Behavior Department at MSPCA/Angell in Boston told PetMD.
Since dogs don't have the same social anxieties as we do, it's unlikely that they feel embarrassment as we know it, but some experts say we can't rule it out.
"Trying to discern what is embarrassment versus fear, discomfort, or anxiety is extremely hard. These are complex emotions and all we can go on is a cause and effect relationship between the environment and the dog's behavior," Molly Sumridge, a certified dog behavior consultant and trainer, and founder of Kindred Companions in Frenchtown, NJ, said. Other experts even think that the evidence supports the idea that dogs do feel embarrassment like we do.
Signs a dog is embarrassed:
So what are the signs that your dog is feeling embarrassed — or guilty or ashamed, if we assume that they're not really feeling embarrassment?
Embarrassment often looks like shyness in dogs. They will do things like:
- Tuck their tails
- Drop their ears
- Avoid eye contact
- Act anxious
- Exhibit submissive behavior
- Show their belly
But what makes a dog embarrassed? Let's look at some of the most common embarrassment triggers and if they actually affect dogs.
Do dogs get embarrassed when you laugh at them?
Sometimes your dog does something so ridiculous that you can't help but laugh at them. Maybe you even tease or mock them, laughing with your friends or roommates or whoever else witnessed the weirdness. If we did this to other humans, it might be considered bullying, and it would almost certainly make the target embarrassed, but do dogs react the same way?
RELATED: Your Dog Feels These Common Emotions
This one is probably a projection on our parts. Because we know we would feel embarrassed if our loved ones shared a laugh at our weird behavior, we assume our dog must feel the same way and read into what are probably just coincidental changes in body language or distraction. This tendency is called anthropomorphizing and we do it all the time.
Do dogs get embarrassed by a haircut?
Bad haircuts are also very unlikely to embarrass our dogs. For one, dogs don't look at themselves the way we do. This also goes back to social norms — dogs don't face social pressure to look a certain way. Other dogs care more about how they smell and play than how they look, and that's probably good enough for your pup.
Do dogs get embarrassed when they fart?
Everybody farts, including dogs. By the way humans might rate the embarrassment level of passing gas (like, smell for instance), dog farts are sometimes downright humiliating.
Even though dogs might sometimes be surprised by the sound of their own farts (which is hilarious and brings us back to the question of dogs being embarrassed when we laugh at them), it's very unlikely that they're embarrassed by the act itself. Dogs have no social norm against it and, as far as they're concerned, it's just a normal body function that happens, like a yawn or a sneeze.
Do dogs feel shame?
MORE: Do Dogs Feel Guilt?
The Associated Press reported in 2014 that the "guilty" or "shameful" look that we've all seen in our pets isn't true guilt. Why? Because that look is a reaction to how their owner is behaving, not to the dog's own actions.
Alexandra Horowitz, an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College in New York City, studied this behavior by taping 14 dogs who were told by their owners not to eat a treat. The owners would leave and sometimes the dog would eat the treat, sometimes they wouldn't. What's more, sometimes the owner would know what the dog had done and sometimes they wouldn't.
"I found that the [guilty] 'look' appeared most often when owners scolded their dogs, regardless of whether the dog had disobeyed or did something for which they might or should feel guilty. It wasn't 'guilt' but a reaction to the owner that prompted the look," Horowitz told the AP.
So, no, your dog probably doesn't feel bad when he breaks the rules. But he does feel bad when he knows he's disappointed or upset you, which is painfully sweet.