As dog lovers, we have always argued that our pups understand our emotional states. In the past many canine experts have disputed this belief, stating that emotions are too complex for dogs to comprehend. But still, we hold tight to the belief that Fluffy knows when you are sad, happy, or content. Even with our firm stance on the topic, the initial question still remains. Why do our dogs come to us, or others, when we cry? It seems that many of the former skeptical experts are changing their response. Studies have been conducted to determine what exactly is behind a dog gravitating to a person who is upset.
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The Root of the Behavior
If you or someone else is upset, and especially if tears are involved, you may have noticed your pup responding when they were otherwise uninterested. In your mind, your fur baby understands the emotional state of the person and is trying to offer comfort. And while experts previously disputed this belief, things have changed in the past few years. Psychologists have been the leading opposition to the idea that your pup comprehends emotion.
Most experts felt that your pup was simply displaying what is known as emotional contagion. Emotional contagion occurs when a person or animal responds to the emotions of another when they don't completely understand the emotion. The most simple explanation of emotional contagion is in a nursery. When one infant starts to cry, all the other babies within earshot in the nursery will do the same. The other infants do not comprehend the emotions of the first baby but are "infected" by it and reacting in kind.
However, a few years ago, a controlled study was conducted by two such experts to determine how much dogs can understand of human emotions. Their initial belief going into the experiment was that a dog's response to someone crying was the more primitive emotional contagion. What they soon found was that most of the dogs responded to any person around them who was upset and crying. Even if it was a stranger with whom they had no previous emotional connection. They do, however, agree that the most important condition of dogs responding is the crying. This experiment has led some experts to change their stance on the topic.
A complete understanding of what our canine companions can comprehend is still unavailable to us. Nevertheless, it seems more and more experts are realizing dogs may have the ability to show not only empathy but also sympathy to anyone. The idea that your sweet pup possesses a desire to comfort others is just another reason to love our furry friends.
Encouraging the Behavior
Showing empathy and sympathy are both instinctual behaviors that we as pet owners understand quite well. The belief that our fur babies are capable of these traits as well serve to further deepen our love and attachment to them. If you notice that your pup is particularly compassionate around even total strangers, you may want to allow him or her to express their good nature to those in need. Looking into ways your pup can act as a therapy dog may be a great option. Your veterinarian or local dog trainer may be able to help you find somewhere fitting for your pup's emotional talent.
One thing to be cautious of, however, is making sure that whomever your dog is attempting to 'console' is okay with receiving a little doggie loving. You will find that most people are fine with it, as long as it is not excessive or intrusive. But as I am sure you are aware, there are those who are not open to any canine contact, for whatever reason. You should always respect their choice, even if you don't agree. This not only is the appropriate thing to do but is also safer for your loving fur baby.
Other Solutions and Considerations
One additional clue that experts have noted as a sign of empathy from dogs is displays of submission. If your dog approaches with submissive body language, such as tucking his or her tail or bowing their head, this is consistent with showing empathy. While all of this research and observation still doesn't give us any definitive answers knowing what to look for can aid in you drawing your own conclusions.
However, if your pup has been around more aggressive displays of crying, he or she may become upset by someone who cries. In these situations, dogs learn that when there is crying there may also be yelling. Some dogs may learn that appeasing the upset person is the best option, while others may choose to run and hide.
Whether your pup is a compassionate soul or more a loner they are there for you all the same. Give them lots of love and accept all the doggie snuggles they are willing to give in return. Sometimes the best remedy for a bad day is just a little one on one time with your sweet fur baby.