You know the story, those times when circumstances overwhelm you and the tears roll out. When you feel sad, your dog will immediately pick up on this and adjust his behavior accordingly. He may become more subdued than usual, lose interest in his toys and even refuse his food. Some dogs will come lie their head in your lap and have even been known to bring you one of their toys. Many dogs will even try to lick away tears as they fall. You the center of his whole world, so sensing your feelings of sadness will have an effect on him too.
In a study published in the journal Animal Cognition, researchers found that a dog was more likely to approach someone who was crying than someone who was humming or talking. Furthermore, they found that dogs respond to weeping with submissive behavior.
In other words, dogs seem to be trying to placate a person who is upset. What is more, dogs will approach anyone who is upset the same way, regardless of whether that person is their owner or not.
The scientists insist that this study does not prove that dogs experience empathy, but it certainly goes a long way to supporting the claim. It also clearly indicates that dogs can identify sadness as an emotion that is different from other feelings.
However, behaviors may not always be related to understanding emotions. A dog who just has chewed up a new pair of shoes might look guilty or hang his head low when you discover the mess. He could behave this way because he's anticipating the punishment to come because of their actions rather than actually understanding of human emotions.
So, if your dog really understands emotions, is he simply reading the emotions as a sign of human weakness and acting accordingly? For example, if your dog senses that you're feeling sad or scared, when he comes to cuddle with you, is he really trying to comfort you, or is he taking advantage of your unhappiness to get a belly rub? This is one secret each dog owner will have to decide for themselves.
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