Dogs are inspirational creatures on so many levels. For one thing, they don't seem to care about what people think about them.
In the middle of a crowded lounge-room, a dog thinks nothing of sitting down to wash their private parts in full view of the assembled guests. How's that for being laid back about life? But on the other hand, there's the dog that dislikes being dressed up as a Halloween pumpkin. Their head goes down, their tail droops, and they give every impression of feeling embarrassed. But is that even a thing?
Do dogs feel embarrassment? And if they do, does this mean they can pretend to feel embarrassed, turning the emotion on and off simply to avoid wearing a costume? Indeed, can dogs fake being embarrassed? Maybe...or maybe not...as it happens, even the experts aren't sure.
Signs of a Dog Faking Embarassment
There's a double dilemma here because experts aren't certain if dogs feel embarrassment, which is what's known as a secondary emotion. When dressed as a pumpkin, it's possible the dog's tail goes down because they don't like feeling restricted inside a costume. (That sounds like a research study right there: Dressing dogs up in different costumes, some flattering and some not, and see if the dogs have an awareness of how they look.)
However, what we can say is that dogs show body language that we humans interpret as embarrassment. So what does this look like?
Just like people, some dogs will hide away. Going to the ground behind the sofa or under a bed fulfills a natural instinct to stay out of a predator's way when the dog feels vulnerable. Call it normal behavior when threatened or embarrassment, the dog reacts in a way we interpret as embarrassment.
Other body language 'tells' include holding the head in a lowered position, ears flat against the head, lowering the body to the ground, and tucking the tail between the legs. Indeed, there is a large overlap between the body language of embarrassment and that of submission.
Think of a situation in which you've felt really embarrassed. Depending on your personality, if people laughed, you may well have snapped back at them with cross words or a hand gesture. Dogs are individuals just as we are, and some dogs will react with hostility and become aggressive. This may result in the dog growling, snapping, and going on the offensive rather than hiding.
The History of Dogs Faking Being Embarrassed
Do dogs have to know what embarrassment feels like in order to fake the emotion? In truth, probably not. Dogs do show a range of body language which people interpret as embarrassment. Whether this is truly them feeling embarrassed or a form of inner conflict, confusion, or anxiety is open to debate. What matters in this context is that the dog exhibits certain actions which people read as embarrassment.
In terms of training and learning, any action the dog makes which gets a reaction from people is apt to be repeated. Hence when we see a dog with lowered ears and a dropped tail wearing a pumpkin costume, we tend to interpret this as embarrassment. If we react by coo-ing over the dog, making a fuss of them, and telling them they look great, the dog makes certain connections.
For example, they learn that wearing that costume and holding themselves in a certain way gets lots of lovely attention. In other words, their 'embarrassed' posture is rewarded. Regardless of what the dog's original motivation or sentiments were, they are apt to repeat the behavior the next time the pumpkin costume is brought out of the closet, because of the attention they got last time.
However, it's salient to reflect on why the dog reacted as they did initially. Signs of anxiety in the dog can be similar to our idea of what doggy embarrassment looks like. Thus, the dog may be acting cowed because they feel the tight costume is attacking or restricting them. Therefore, we need to be very careful about labeling certain actions as 'cute' when, for the dog, they cause real distress.
The Science of a Dog Faking Embarrassment
It turns out experts in the field of dog psychology and behavior are conflicted as to whether dogs are capable of feeling embarrassment or not.
It is generally accepted that dogs live in the moment, and feel emotions as a direct response to what's occurring at a particular moment in time. It's held that dogs possess 'instant' or 'reactive' emotions, such as fear, anxiety, happiness, or sadness.
However, embarrassment requires a degree of interpretation of what others are thinking, which some experts argue dogs don't possess. In short, dogs don't 'over think' in the same way people do, wondering about whether this color leash suits their fur or not. Thus, dogs are not capable of feeling more complex emotions such as guilt and embarrassment, which need the dog to have a perception of right and wrong, justice and injustice, and other complex thoughts.
Indeed, this is a tricky subject. The owner who has come home to a guilty-looking dog and then finds a puddle on the floor, has little doubt the dog feels guilt. However, the dog's emotion is more likely to be anxiety as they remember an 'irrational' punishment the last time the owner came home and got cross for no reason. Which just goes to show that people are prone to read what they want to see into their dog's reaction, rather than seeing what's really going through the dog's mind.
Training a Dog to Fake Embarrassment
When a person is embarrassed, one reaction is to partially cover their face with their hands. To teach a dog to fake being embarrassed, a neat trick is to have them cover their nose or face with their paws as if hiding their face.
It's easiest for the dog to learn this in the "Down" position, so that they don't overbalance when raising one or both paws.
The principle of teaching this trick is to reward the dog when they raise a paw to the nose or face. The easiest way to do this is to place something slightly sticky on the dog's nose. Try using a small piece of post-it note or a two-inch piece of sticky tape (but not too sticky!) and place it on the dog's muzzle.
The dog's natural reaction is usually to paw at the tape to remove it. When they lift their paw, say "Yes" in an excited way and then reward the dog with a small, tasty treat. Keep repeating this, so that the dog is encouraged to raise their paw to the nose.
As the dog gets more accomplished at rubbing their nose, add a cue word such as "Touch". Say this as the dog starts to raise their paw so that they link it to the action they are undertaking. Then, say "Yes" and reward.
With sufficient repetition, the dog should learn to lift their paw to the nose on the cue word "Touch" even when no paper or tape is present
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 05/15/2018, edited: 04/06/2020