There Charlotte was, a 3-month-old rescue puppy donning a pink floral dress. Charlotte had only been with us for a week, fresh from Tennessee, and now she looked as if she was ready to walk down the runway during Fashion Week in New York City.
"Oh my God!" I exclaimed, as my partner Karen held her proudly. "Isn't she cute?"
"She is," I answered, trying to stop my eyes from rolling into the back of my head.
Loretta, her older sister, seemed just as excited, or perhaps, perplexed. She looked inquisitively at this diminutive bag of paws squirming in Karen's arms, a $9 dress flapping in a soft June breeze. I turned to Loretta and said, "Don't worry, sweetheart. You don't have to wear a dress if you don't want to."
Charlotte grew out of the dress a week or two later. She now has a new winter coat, which she has yet to wear. As for the dresses, I hope Karen doesn't go shopping for some crazy holiday outfit.
Since you're reading this, chances are you love dogs. And some of you, I suspect, like to dress them in all types of frilly garments and outrageous get-ups. Halloween costumes! Holiday outfits! Birthday dresses! Boots! Scarves! Wigs! Painted nails! Boots! All of which you wouldn't be caught dead in. Which leads us to the question of the day: Do dogs get embarrassed when we do silly thing like dress them up?
"I don't think they get embarrassed, but definitely annoyed," my friend Dawn McKersie, a dog trainer and sometimes puppy sitter laughed. Then to prove her point, she sent me a photo of one of her clients who had a lion's mane wig around his tiny head. The dog looked miserable. No, really. He looked as if he wanted to hide in the jaws of a real lion.
"What did you think?" I asked. "Look at that poor pup's expression."
"He's miserable," she responded.
Embarrassment is an emotion, just like love, guilt, sadness, fear, happiness. When someone we know dies, we feel sorrow. When people make fun of us, we feel humiliated or embarrassed. When something good happens, we feel happiness.
Humans, according to W. Gerrod Parrott, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University, have six basic emotions: love, joy, surprise, anger, sadness and fear. These emotions then branch out to secondary emotions, such as pride, relief and optimism. Tertiary emotions include excitement, loneliness and embarrassment.
Yet, emotions are fleeting. They last for only a brief time. We don't stay embarrassed forever, or at the very least, shouldn't. In humans, embarrassment is a so-called "self-conscious" emotion, just like guilt. We get embarrassed when we trip or fall, burp at the dinner table, or spill a cup of coffee on a nice white shirt as a crowd of people look on.
What Emotions Do Dogs Feel?
Do dogs feel the same emotions we do? It's a good question, and one that scientists have been mulling for years. If you're a dog owner, there is no question dogs become emotional. They wag their tail when they are happy. They look guilty — ears back, head down — when they pee on the rug or chew a library book to shreds. We also know they can get jealous of a new baby, a new dog or the cat who sits on mommy's lap.
Still, many scientists have yet to come to grips with the idea that dogs experience emotions like humans. While some argue that dogs do feel a range of emotions, guilt may not one of them. Instead, dogs can be simply reacting to their owner's body language. In the opinion of some, dogs experience only "instant-reaction" emotions: fear, joy, sadness, anger.
Which brings us back to whether dogs get embarrassed. It's a bit hard to fathom, considering they lick themselves in the most inappropriate places, and often put their snouts ... well, you can finish that sentence.
"As far as I know, there has been no systematic research into whether or not dogs feel embarrassment, but I would guess that they do," Dr. Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist who has written extensively on the psychology of dogs and cats, said in an email. "That said, when we dress them up as lobsters or Donald Trump for Halloween, and they put their ears back and tuck their tails down, it may not be embarrassment that they are feeling — they might simply find the costumes uncomfortable or unfamiliar. And they might be upset by, or reacting to, the fact that all the people around them are laughing and acting excited."
If she had to bet on it, Pierce says dogs probably experience the same basic emotions as humans. "Dogs most certainly experience what are called the primary emotions, such as anger, fear, sadness and joy," she says. "They also likely experience a whole range of secondary emotions, including empathy, guilt and embarrassment. As for which emotions dogs lack, I wouldn't feel confident putting anything on this list. My guess is that the more closely scientists study the emotional experiences and capacities of dogs, the more they will find."
Should You Dress Your Dog?
So, should you dress your dog up? To put it bluntly, if you would feel humiliated dressed up as a lobster or Donald Trump, then chances are, your dog will too.
"When people ask me whether it is mean to dress our dogs up in costumes or fancy sweaters, my answer is: 'Ask your dog'," Pierce says. "If your dog seems uncomfortable, then take the costume off (after quickly taking that cute photograph to post on social media). If your dog doesn't seem to care, or perhaps even seems to like being fancied-up, then its fine."