By Linda Cole
Pet owners who pay attention to their dog or cat can see a range of emotions displayed from time to time, but is embarrassment one of them?
We view emotions from our human definition of them, and see the world in a specific way that’s different from how dogs, cats and other animals perceive life. But that doesn’t mean that animals can’t outwardly show how they feel. Scientists know that animals can feel anger, sadness, fear, empathy and happiness. When it comes to the more subtle social emotions, like embarrassment, some experts believe that dogs and cats are capable of feeling humiliation, although it may not be the same way we feel it.
No one wants to be embarrassed in front of other people. If you slip and fall on an icy sidewalk, the first thing most people do is quickly scan the area to see if someone was watching. Being publicly corrected for a mistake will make most people blush. Animals don’t blush, or if they do it goes unnoticed because we can’t see that flash of blood rush to the face. However, I have watched my dogs slip in the snow or on ice and bounce back up looking around to see if I witnessed the fall. Every so often one of the cats will misjudge a jump and fall short of their mark. The look on their face says, “I meant to do that,” but their reaction says otherwise as the errant jumper sulks away.
Embarrassment is a self-conscious emotion, and while other emotions like fear, anger and surprise are emotions that are processed automatically without a need to think about it, emotions that are self-conscious are more complex, requiring self-evaluation and self-reflection. The question then is: are dogs and cats capable of looking inward at themselves?
Scientists have determined that dogs have the same mental and emotional abilities as an 18 month old human and can feel basic emotions like joy, sadness, happiness and fear. With children, the ability to feel empathy and other secondary emotions doesn’t begin to emerge until they are around two years old. We know that dogs are capable of feeling empathy, but the common belief of researchers so far is that dogs can’t feel self-reflective emotions. However, if dogs show empathy, is it possible they are closer to the cognitive and emotional abilities of a two year old human?
Secondary emotions are complicated, and studying the complexity of the dog mind is an ongoing process. There’s still a lot that isn’t known about our canine friends, and it’s possible that researchers will eventually uncover evidence showing dogs are capable of more complex emotions. It wasn’t all that long ago where the conventional belief was that humans were the only species capable of showing emotions. Today we know that’s not true. Until recently, scientists believed dogs didn’t have an awareness of self because they failed the mirror test, but they do pass it when tested in the way they gather information about their world. Like the mirror test, it’s possible we’re limited on what we can learn about dog emotions and cognitive abilities because we’re using the wrong tests.
Other studies have found that a dog’s brain is more like ours than once thought, at least when it comes to processing social information. One way of building a strong bond with your dog is to share sustained eye contact. This causes oxytocin to spike in both humans and dogs. It’s a form of social communication that most likely developed during the domestication process.
Whether or not dogs and cats can feel embarrassment or other social emotions is still unknown. What do you think? Has your pet ever reacted in a way that seemed like embarrassment to you?
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