Embarrassment is an interesting concept. For humans, embarrassment can be caused by a number of factors: someone not conforming to societal norms in public, something said that has sexual implications, being asked to speak to a group of people when you’re not used to speaking in public, walking into something when you’re not paying attention, and on it goes. But what about dogs? Do they ever feel embarrassed? In my opinion, I don’t think they do. I have been a dog watcher for a number of years now and I can’t think of one example where a dog shows any reaction that would be construed as being embarrassed.
On Facebook people will sometimes post videos of dogs that have done something “naughty”: ripped open pillows, stolen their sibling’s food (or human’s food) or left mud all over the kitchen floor. When a human talks to the dog it is invariably in an aggressive tone reflecting their frustration with what has happened. What I perceive in the dog is either a protective cowering because the dog is anticipating some form of harsh treatment or a desire to pacify the human. Embarrassment? Not so much. You have to understand that dogs are opportunists. When a situation arises that they feel they can benefit from, they will take full advantage. There’s a pizza on the counter: no-one is around to stop me so why not? I feel in a playful mood, there’s a cushion on the couch, I love to shake cushions, so why not?
The societal norms for dogs are very different than they are for humans. Dogs observe the body language of other dogs and listen to verbal communication all the time. If a dog behaves in a way that is not considered normal by other dogs, one of two things will happen. The dog will either be ignored because it’s not affecting the other dogs or the other dogs will address the issue either through their own body language or verbal rebuke. No embarrassment is felt.
If a dog runs into something whilst playing, as happened with Finn this morning, they won’t exhibit embarrassment but will likely shake it off and get on with life.
As dog owners, don’t we all love the time when the ice thaws and the once solid ground becomes a quagmire of mud. Virtually every trip to the off-leash park ends up as bath time for our dogs. Are they embarrassed at being covered in mud after chasing the geese or magpies through the weeds? Not at all! Best part of the day for them.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that dogs don’t have feelings. For anyone who has had a dog for any length of time, they will appreciate that dogs are capable of expressing a range of emotions, from sadness through to outright joy, but embarrassment, in my opinion, is not a word (or feeling) in a dog’s vocabulary.