Over the weekend I decided to start some spring cleaning. Once I got into my piles of magazines, though, I have to admit I probably did more reading than getting rid of cobwebs or arranging closets, or any of the other things I was really planning to do. Oh, well. There’s always next week.
Anyway, I came across an article in Psychology Today that dealt with something I’ve always wondered about – do dogs ever feel embarrassment? Under what circumstances? And how should we handle it?
Red Faces at the Dog Park
If you spend much time at the dog park, you’ve no doubt seen this scenario play out – everything’s going just fine, and then someone’s dog starts humping someone else’s dog. Or worse, a dog starts humping another dog’s human! Then there is usually much embarrassment on the part of the humans involved, and the offending dog ends up being scolded.
The dog, having been told that his behavior is unacceptable, usually looks down and off to one side, in much the same way as humans do when they are embarrassed. But is embarrassment really what the dog is feeling? Or is he just sorry that he disappointed his human? I would think that, given humping is perfectly natural behavior to a dog, it’s the latter, at least in this situation. For more about humping and how to handle it, read Happy Harold the Humpy Husky.
Remember my friend Al and his elderly Saint Bernard, Hannah? Well, I’m sorry to have to report that Hannah is feeling her age lately, and has the occasional accident in the house. Al doesn’t mind – he says that’s what they make soap and water for, and as long as Hannah is still enjoying life, he’ll keep on cleaning up after her. But he’s worried that her accidents are embarrassing her. Often, post-urination, she’ll circle a bit, lie down, and look sad.
Of course you could argue that Saint Bernards often look sad, and that Hannah’s expression may not mean much. I’m frequently perturbed when dog owners make the decision to euthanize based on the idea that they “know” their dog’s incontinence is causing him distress. Realistically, we have no way of knowing if the dog is feeling embarrassed. It could simply be discomfort over losing control of ordinary bodily functions. Or again, that they worry that they have disappointed their human by not being able to do something that they were trained to do – in this case, to go outside.
Being on Display
Now, a few words about another type of embarrassment. I wonder how dogs feel when we do things to them for our own amusement. You may know someone who has attached a clothespin to the end of a dog’s tail – just on the hair, of course, not right on the tail itself where it would hurt. Maybe you’ve even done it yourself, and then laughed like crazy while the dog circled frantically, trying to get the clothespin off. I wonder if dogs feel embarrassed, or even humiliated, in such circumstances.
Or, you dress your dog up in a costume at Halloween, and then take a ton of pictures to post on Facebook. One would assume, naturally, that the dog does not know he’s a Facebook star, but the dress-up thing is not something a dog would choose, left to his own devices. Does he feel humiliated?
Honestly, I don’t know. Some animal behaviorists believe that dogs do not feel embarrassment, shame or humiliation. Others insist that dogs feel all the same emotions we do, and they feel them even more intensely.
Regarding potty embarrassments, I think Al is getting it exactly right. Hannah might be embarrassed by her occasional incontinence, or she might not. Al never makes a big deal out of it when she messes, never lets her think even for one minute that he’s upset, speaks to her reassuringly and touches her gently, and then simply cleans up. I’d like to think that Hannah’s expression is just that natural Saint Bernard “sad” look, that she knows Al will always take care of her, and that she has done nothing to be ashamed of.
As to other kinds of embarrassment, dogs will do just about anything to please us. If that means dressing up in a cute outfit, or having to do something along the lines of David Letterman’s famed Stupid Pet Tricks, they’ll do it without complaint. But how do they really feel about it?
Personally, I think dogs can feel embarrassed. You know when your dog looks happy, when he looks frightened, and when he looks irritated. So if you think he looks as though he feels embarrassed or humiliated, he probably does.
Even if he doesn’t feel that way, there’s something about doing things that are designed to make our dogs the objects of laughter that troubles me. I don’t believe that your dog would ever do anything willingly that would humiliate you or make you uncomfortable, so why would you do that to him?
Surely people can find other ways to get a good laugh that don’t involve embarrassing their dog.
Show the Love
I am not a fan of costumes for dogs. I don’t even much like those little bows that groomers place on the ears of small breeds following the clipping and the perfuming. The bows are not for the dogs – they are for the amusement of the owner, and there is just something about them that feels wrong to me.
That said, I’m not totally against clothing for dogs – notice that I said “clothing,” not “costumes.” A pair of booties can be great for dogs whose pads get iced up during the winter, and a sweater can be a very good thing if your dog is likely to shiver on cold days. It’s a simple matter of comfort.
But I really don’t like humiliating messages on clothing. Sweaters bearing messages like “Naughty Boy” or “Poo Factory” might seem hilarious to some people, but I’d rather show a dog, and the people he comes into contact with, how much he is loved. Blueberry Pet makes a great dog sweater in light pink with dark pink hearts, and it’s available in a variety of sizes. In the small size, it usually retails for $24.59, but Amazon has it for just $14.99.
The Final Word
No one really knows if dogs can feel embarrassed or humiliated. Err on the side of caution, and never do anything to make your dog feel bad – he wouldn’t do that to you.