6 min read


Can Dogs Feel Upset?



6 min read


Can Dogs Feel Upset?


Welcome to the wonderful world of dogs and all they know and feel! There’s a lot of talk about their exceptional abilities and the things they have in common with us. Dogs share our capacity to feel emotions like happiness and sadness, so when they see you upset, don’t be surprised if they try to comfort you. 

They’ve been with us for thousands of years and have aligned with our emotive natures. Those soulful eyes staring into yours are feeling your pain or joy. The connection is sentient and is a glimpse at the care-giving hearts of dogs. Emotional support pups support humans with depression and anxiety and give hope to war veterans with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). This is why we call them man's best friend and embrace their helping paws.


Signs a Dog Can Tell Their Owner is Upset

If a dog wags its tail, we think "happy", and if they whine, we know they are upset. Their language is simple as they rely on body movements to share their story. Getting to know a dog’s lingo is not hard, as every part of their being can relay their feelings of happiness or heartache.

The Maltese at the shelter cowers in fear, yawning as you approach and whimpering from their puppy mill past. Dogs tell us they are unhappy with a change in behavior. Your upbeat Collie suddenly mopes around the house, uninterested in treats, causing you to worry they are unwell. It could be a stomach upset or something that has altered in their life. Dogs are dependent on routine and react to changes on the home front.

If your pup is sick, they may show a lack of focus with excessive panting and dilated pupils. Dogs feel unwell from time to time, but if they are listless and won't sleep or eat, you need to see the vet.

Have you ever watched a toddler cry when they see their mom upset? You can liken that emotion with a dog and their guardian. Woofers are the cognitive age of a 2-3-year-old and they depend greatly on their pet-parents. If suddenly their normally cheery pet-mom is visually upset, they might feel their world coming undone.

Dogs are aware when their owner is upset as they raise their paw or lick the tears from your face. They are emotionally supportive and seem to care when we’re sad, making all kinds of whining noises or gifting a favorite toy. This scenario has been recorded countless times causing folks to believe dogs are empathetic.

According to Psychology Today, a study run by psychologists from Goldsmiths College in London found this could be true. Eighteen dogs were put to the test in their own homes with their owner and a stranger involved. Each person would speak, hum or pretend to cry. It was expected a dog might nuzzle or place their head in their upset owners lap to show some form of empathy. 

What amazed the researchers was the dogs comforted their crying owners and the stranger. This is how people can react when a person they don’t know seems in distress. They also pointed out that a child around the age of two has a form of empathy, so it's apparent dogs do also. When they see we are upset, they want to make us feel better.

Body Language

Signs a dog is feeling distressed include:<br/>

  • Whining
  • Cowering
  • Panting
  • Wag Tail
  • Yawning
  • Lack Of Focus
  • Whimpering
  • Licking

Other Signs

More signs a dog feels upset are:<br/>

  • Not Sleeping
  • Nuzzling Their Owner
  • Bringing Their Guardian A Toy
  • Having Little Interest In Food
  • Comforting Their Owner

The History of Dogs Feeling Upset


Our lives with dogs started eons ago in a world where humans stalked the plains for food along with mammoths, saber-tooth tigers, and wolves. The focus was to provide for their young and not get eaten by predators. Thanks to a few friendly wolves, humankind became a hunter to be feared and then saw the possibility of containing animals in farms for food.

The kinship with the wolf potentially changed the future. Perhaps we’d be still living in caves with no internet or mobile phones without them. Some scientists believe that wolves helped domesticate humans. Humankind's new friend guarded the campfires and helped hunt down the big game. As dogs, they herded and policed their livestock.

Wolves must have been emotive to put their trust in earlier humans. We know they grieve when a pack member dies and live in close family groups. These are the social creatures that gave us our dogs and who communicate their emotions with body language cues. They are also vocal like woofers, as they howl and whine, plus, they are touchy-feely like humans and dogs.

Canines have been selectively bred for thousands of years, kicking out wild aggression that could see us as a tasty meal. We took the best attributes of the wolf and created Poodles, Samoyeds, and Pugs. There’s not a lot of "wolf" left, as some dog trainers would have you believe.

Dog owners face a lot of critics who believe dogs are only in it for the treats and food. They tell us that wolves came close to the campfire because they loved the smell of our food.

Modern Dog Magazine mentions veterinarian, Fred Metzger of Pennsylvania State University. He believes dogs are only into us to get our attention and chicken treats. That makes them fakers who cunningly trick us they feel love. Are we being duped by a species that has us in the palm of their paws?

Science Proves Dogs Read Emotions


If you want to know if dogs love us, ask the guys in science. They don’t mess with the truth and are not tied-up in emotion. You’ll notice studious scientists working with tasty treats in their pocket.

According to Scientific American, dogs may have mirror neurons that explain communication with humans. These mirror neurons were the discovery of Italian neuroscientist, Giacomo Rizzolatti of the University of Parma, back in 1990.

This groundbreaking event happened as they were looking into the minds of monkeys. They saw neurons in the brain light up when a monkey took some food and his monkey mate copied the action. Neurons in both monkeys sparked up at the same time.

We know dogs are mimics, so it's likely these mirror neurons are at work. This is why dogs whine when they see we are upset. It’s a communicative skill we have as humans when a friend tells us some sad news. Our facial expressions alter instantly to match what we have heard. It looks like our brain cells are going ballistic as they mirror other peoples mood.

There's evidence to support that dogs read our emotions and know when we're feeling distressed. Animal behaviorists and psychologists from Sao Paulo and Lincoln universities put this theory to the test.

Pooches were shown image pairs of people looking happy, angry, and sad. At the same time, they listened to an audio of the visual pictures presented.  Dogs stunned researchers by looking at the images that lined up with the sound. Pretty cool for a species that has spent centuries in the doghouse!

Helping Your Dog Feel Less Upset


Dogs can be upset for a whole host of different reasons. Sometimes, these reasons are completely out of our control as owners. Other times, there are things we can do to limit the amount of distress our pooches feel. Either way, the next time your pooch is feeling blue, why not give some of the following a go?

If you are noticing a chronic pattern of sadness or depression in your dog, you may want to look at their daily routine. Are they getting regular exercise and fun time with you each day? Do they eat high-quality food? Are they suffering from any obvious (or not so obvious) health problems? Does everyone in the household treat them with love and care? 

Any of these factors can, over time, contribute to your pooch feeling upset. The ways to address them include making daily walks and fun time a priority, giving them species-appropriate food, taking them in for a full vet check, and having a family meeting to make sure all treat the dog properly. But if this behavior appears practically out of nowhere, it is likely that your dog is, instead, reacting to a specific incident.

This often happens after any kind of unusual or stressful altercation. Has anyone in the house been yelling? Did your dog have a bad run-in with another canine? Is there a guest at your home who your dog is not fond of? Any of these happenings could lead to your dog feeling some level of distress. In some cases, all that you need to do is remove a dog from the unpleasant scenario and give them a bit of loving. Other times, you will want to desensitize your dog to whatever is upsetting them (generally with lots of praise and treats from the person that may be the target of your dog's fear).

It might not always be easy, but in the long run, when your pup is happy, you probably are too!

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By a Japanese Chin lover Linda Cole

Published: 06/08/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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