If you own a dog, you can attest to the notion that indeed dogs do have a sixth sense, that being that your pooch has the capability of knowing exactly how and what you are feeling. Scientifically though, you may be asking yourself, how is this possible? What exactly is it that your dog is sensing and interpreting that allows them to react in the way you need to be comforted? Can dogs read and interpret human emotions, and more specifically, can they sense when you are crying?
If you own a dog, you probably have already formed an opinion to this frequently asked question. The answer is quite simple; yes, they most certainly can. Dogs have the capability to recognize emotions in humans by combining sensory information to interpret and react to a situation.
Signs a Dog Senses You're Crying
Have you ever noticed your dog knows just what do to when you are crying? Those signs you see exhibited in your dog, are probably the same common signs seen in all dogs when they witness a human in teary distress. For example, the most common sign you will see when a dog senses that you are crying is that your dog approaches you in what appears to be a comforting, but submissive manner (e.g., head bowed).
Many dogs will also begin to nuzzle or nudge the crying person, or they may lay their head on the person's lap. Less showy dogs may simply sit or lay down at the distressed person's side.
Dogs are also known to mimic emotions in humans, so your pooch might begin to whimper or cry if they see and hear you doing so. Their eyes may be wide, and it is likely that their ears are down.
The History of Dogs' Emotions
Even though it has been proven that dogs can and do respond to crying, science and philosophy have not always supported this notion. In fact, it was not until recent scientific research, with a focus on behavioral psychology in animals, that this ability was recognized and validated. Before that time, however, our understanding of our dear animal friends was far less.
As early as the 1600's, the time of the French philosopher Renee Descartes, dogs have been misunderstood and underestimated. According to Descartes, it is the soul that gives humans consciousness, which is defined as the state of being aware of one's surroundings.
Unfortunately, Descartes believed that dogs, like all animals, had no soul, but were machine-like and therefore unable to have conscious thoughts, feelings, or understandings. If you have a dog, you are most likely shocked by this idea that your beloved animal is unaware of you and its surroundings, as you know how responsive, caring and loving they can be to your every need.
Thanks to science though, we now know Descartes could not have been more wrong.
The Science of Dogs Sensing Crying
So what is it that your dog is sensing when you are crying? Is it what they see, or what they hear? Actually, psychological research has indicated that it is a combination of both auditory and visual sensory information that allows a dog to not only sense that someone is crying, but make a connection that this is a negative emotion that requires attending to.
Animal behavior researchers have conducted a variety of studies that have given insight into the psychology behind what it actually is that the dog is sensing when someone is crying. One study, in particular, found that dogs can determine if a person is happy by just looking at their faces, proving dogs have the ability to recognize facial cues.
Does this mean, though, that man’s best friend has the capability of actual emotional perception or is it just recognition coupled with familiarity that causes your dog to react? One research study conducted by University of Lincoln’s School of Psychology found that dogs truly recognize emotions in humans and other dogs as a result of combining what they hear and see when a human is crying.
The capability of a dog to do this would require the animal to have some form of a system for categorizing and, therefore, recognizing emotions, meaning that they truly can "sense" crying and distinguish it from other sounds made by humans.
Some would argue that the dogs only react to crying because they express curiosity in the situation, but further scientific research has disproved that theory. For example, studies have found that dogs are more likely to approach individuals when they are crying, versus making loud or humming noises, implying that it is not curiosity alone that causes the dog to act in this way.
This demonstrates that when a human cries, it carries more meaning to the dog compared to just hearing noises alone, and, therefore, it is more than just a conditioned response or because of curiosity.
Training Your Dog to Sense When You're Crying
Even though it has been proven that dogs emotionally perceive your crying and can react in the ways mentioned above, it is still possible to encourage and reinforce the behaviors they exhibit to strengthen their reactions and responses to the crying.
For example, according to psychologist B.F. Skinner, any form of learning can be strengthened or weakened through the use of consequences and punishments, known as Operant Conditioning. Learning can be encouraged by using positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement methods, whereas it can be discouraged using punishment.
Negative reinforcement requires taking away something in order to promote a positive behavior (such as a taking a treat away) and punishment entails giving something to extinguish a behavior (such as a timeout in one's crate).
It is positive reinforcement that will be use useful when encouraging and strengthening your pup's response to crying. Positive reinforcement entails giving your pooch a motivational stimulus after they have completed the desired behavior. This motivational stimulus can be as simple as praising them orally (e.g., saying "Good Boy/Girl" in a positive tone), giving them physical attention (e.g., petting them), or rewarding them with a psychical treat (e.g., either a toy or food reward).
As a result of the stimulus, the behaviour is much more likely to occur in the future because your dog is associating it with the positive feelings they experience from being rewarded. Therefore, if you cry and your dog exhibits any of the signs mentioned above, you have the opportunity to use positive reinforcement strategies to further encourage the way they respond to you. If this is something you're looking to do, don't forget to grab the dried liver the next time you're reaching for a tissue!
By Becky Widdifield
Published: 06/10/2018, edited: 04/06/2020