Maybe your dog slipped and fell down the stairs and then ran off with eyes averted and tail between his legs. Or else you tried dressing the new puppy up as a reindeer for Christmas, and he spent the whole night hiding behind the couch. In a human, we’d definitely assume that these are signs of embarrassment. But in dogs, it’s a little more complicated. In short, dogs can feel something like embarrassment, though with less nuance than humans.
Embarrassment vs Shame vs Guilt
To figure out if dogs feel embarrassed, let’s start by thinking about what that really means.
Embarrassment is part of a whole spectrum of closely related emotions centered around doing something wrong. Shame, guilt, and self-consciousness are other emotions that are closely related. You might feel embarrassed when you make a mistake in front of other people, but you probably don’t feel ashamed of yourself. That’s because embarrassment is all about social perception, while shame is more about your own morality. These kinds of subtle distinctions are probably lost on your dog.
But that doesn’t mean that your dog doesn’t feel emotions under that umbrella.
Positive and Negative Attention
Another way to think about embarrassment is about your dog’s attempts to fit in with the “pack.” Dogs are social creatures, and they definitely respond to social cues. Like humans, they want positive attention and acceptance from the group, and they don’t want negative attention or rejection. Embarrassment is an outgrowth of that.
So, when your dog goes to hide after he slips and falls, he’s probably feeling a type of embarrassment that comes from making a mistake in front of others. He doesn’t want to be seen as weak or clumsy because he doesn’t want negative attention.
But avoiding negative attention might not always come from embarrassment. Take the costume example. You might feel like your dog is self-conscious about the silly costume, but it’s much more likely that being forced to wear something uncomfortable counts as negative attention in your dog’s book. Your dog is going off to sulk because he didn’t like the interaction, not because he thinks it looks silly.
Signs of Embarrassment in Dogs
The ways dogs communicate embarrassment can also be a little confusing. A common sign is submissive behavior. This could include tucking their tails, dropping their ears, and cowering. They might avoid eye contact, retreat to a safe space to be alone, and overall, not want attention.
Other dogs might respond to embarrassment by masking the emotion—either by trying to pretend that nothing’s wrong or by acting irritated or distressed. Getting to know your individual dog’s reactions can help you decide how they are feeling.
So, the short answer is that your dog probably feels something akin to embarrassment, but they probably don’t get all the nuances that go along with that in humans. Embarrassment is really complicated when you think about it! But overall, if you want to say your dog is embarrassed, you can go right ahead.
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