Both dogs and humans feel a variety of emotions. Those lucky enough to have a dog as a member of their household have witnessed their capacity to speak, feel, and understand. I’ve heard it said that a dog is only as intelligent as a two year old baby. I’ve also heard that shame is one of the only emotions which dogs cannot feel.
There is much we have learned about our four legged friends over the years. They in turn have learned much from us. We feel for them and they for us. But how do we know what they feel? Do dogs feel shame, or do they only feel what we think they feel?
What Is Shame?
When someone recognizes their own behavior as wrong or foolish, they are feeling shame. If you have ever hung your head after failure, you have felt shame. If you have found yourself to be unworthy in some way, you have felt shame. Do dogs feel shame? Do they hang their heads after a failure, or consider themselves unworthy? It’s difficult to say.
We see dogs do many things and assume we know how they feel, but how do we know they feel shame? If you tell your dog he is a “bad dog”, does he consider his actions and feel like a bad dog?
How Do We Know What We See?
I’ve loved dogs all my life, but have only had the benefit of living with one for a little more than a year. The dog in the photo above is my girl, Abbey. What kind of emotion is she displaying in that photo? Her facial expression could be revealing sadness, guilt, shame, or boredom. Several times a day I notice this face on her, although sometimes her head rests between her paws, which is an intriguing position. In order to understand the emotion we must first know the setting.
Prior to taking the photo above, Abbey was following me through the house. I would say her mood was either excited or anxious at that time. I asked her to lie down on the floor, and being extremely loyal she did as I asked. Her facial expression should not have been one of sadness, guilt, shame, or boredom. She was simply awaiting my next move.
That being said, the argument could be made that her expression quickly changed, like that of a very young child, reacting to a displeasing statement. At other times a child may make a facial expression, such as a sad face, in an attempt to change an adults mind. Would a dog behave this way?
Things Are Not Always What They Appear
I captured the second image just as Abbey was about to lie down. It seems to show an expression of anger. However, Abbey did not have this look on her face at any time. I would go so far as to say that she has never made this face in her life. By simply moving the muscles of her face as she was laying down, I caught a momentary angry face. Pictures can tell us a lot, but clearly they cannot always reveal an exact emotion.
So what then can we say about the emotions of dogs? Are dogs capable of love? Do dogs get jealous? Can dogs become embarrassed? Do dogs feel shame?
Personally, I would agree that dogs go through many of the same emotions we humans go through. But I can’t say for sure they go through all of them. It’s something that is very difficult to measure after all. Many studies done regarding shame in humans take place via questionnaire. We can answer questions honestly, dishonestly, or inaccurately due to our own self perceptions.
Emotions Of Dogs
If you live with a dog I trust there is some connection there. Dogs react to us and we to them, resulting in shared emotions. It’s very easy for me to tell when Abbey is happy, excited, tired, hurt, anxious, or afraid. When we get out of the house together, or meet other dogs, she is happy and excited. If it thunders or fireworks go off, she looks concerned and afraid. If we go to the dog park and Abbey notices me petting another dog, she may try to get my attention. Is this jealous behavior? It could be. It also could simply be attention seeking behavior since I would be paying attention to her otherwise.
Children can show envious or jealous behavior at a very young age. It’s not unbelievable to think that a dog could do the same. They have, in fact, lived with us for thousands of years. Dogs learn our language and understand our emotions very well. Any time I become upset, Abbey, will do whatever she can to get my attention and make it better. She will get in my face, lick me and lay on top of me as a means to get me “back to normal”. On more than one occasion she has acted this way even though I had not looked at her, or spoken a word. How did she know something upsetting had happened? She just knew.
If you live with dogs you probably have your own unique experiences as well. Dogs understand things in their own way. Sometimes their animal instincts can get the better of them. They live with us, they learn from us, and I have to believe they evolve with us. If someone points a finger at a dog and laughs, will that dog turn away in humiliation? I think not. Can a dog learn humiliation from us? I bet they can!
When we walk, Abbey, around the neighborhood we often make silly jokes about the experience. I’ve read some interesting things about the way dogs do their business around town. One expert likened it to sending email. Dogs find a spot to sniff (receive mail) and then do their own business (leave mail) nearby.
Do I buy the idea that it works that way? Not really. Is it fun to talk about it as if it does? Sure! One day we walked by the boxers yard, Abbey, did her thing in the grass as the boxers barked from inside the house, and then she stuck her tongue out and kept on moving. I provided the voice over for Abbey, “Hey guys left you some fan mail, hope you enjoyed watching. Ha, Ha”!
Do dogs feel shame? I bet some dogs do feel shame, as well as other emotions we humans feel. If they don’t, I believe they have the capacity to do so. Every dog is different and goes through different experiences though. Each dog adapts to the home in which it lives.
Our furry family members are unique and extraordinary creatures. At the end of the day, I don’t think anyone who lives with a dog will accept the idea that dogs are incapable of feeling certain emotions. You have to admit though, sometimes we see what we want to see.
I’m a certified personal trainer in San Antonio. After adopting Abbey, I created Places for Pups to help you get outside, exercise with your dog and have fun doing it.
We have mastered hiking in Texas Hill Country. Though we emerge from the woods unharmed, we are not responsible for you or your pets. You are solely responsible for trying exercises, or places discussed on this site.
Grab the best hiking gear and go dog friendly. I wish you good fortune on the trails to come.