Can Dogs Tell When You are Sad?

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Introduction

Every day there was a happy reunion in the house when the kids got home from school. Bonny would have rested all day while the house was quiet. By 4:00, she was waiting at the door and greeted the kids with a wagging tail and begs for a treat. They would have their snacks together, they would go outside to play, and the dog would even lay by them as they did their homework. 

One day, one of the kids came home very sad. Something had happened at school that was upsetting. She dropped her bag, fell on the couch, and cried her heart out. Bonny was her greatest comfort at that moment. Bonny went to her, climbed up beside her, rested her chin on her leg and stayed by her side for the entire evening. 

Just like Bonny, your dog knows you well. Your dog can tell when you have a change in routine, are not well, or are feeling anxious. One of the most endearing capacities of your dog is to provide you with protection and comfort when you are sad.

Signs Your Dog Knows You are Sad

Dogs have many behaviors that connect to their instincts. They are, after all, animals. They seek food when they hungry. They will chase running animals. They seem to live in the moment. When it comes to your relationship with your dog, there are signals your dog can give you as to what they are feeling. 

Your dog is sensitive to changes in the environment, threats, separations, and your emotions. Your dog can show you affection and comfort in your time of need. There are signals your dog can give you that let you know that this is truly a caring relationship.

Observers of dogs and dog owners have noted that dogs will go to their owners when they are crying and sad. The dog will act submissive. Cues of submissive behavior include blinking and yawning. The dog will lay down and drop the ears. The dog will look at you with those big puppy-dog eyes, staring with adoration. 

When you are petting your dog, you may even find that the dog flips and exposes their stomach. Your dog may do some lip-licking and open the mouth slightly. These are all signs of empathy and concern for you.

Your dog can sense your emotions. When you are sad, your dog may actually mirror or reflect your behavior. Your dog may lose their appetite and show a reduced energy level. Your dog may also lay down beside you. Some dogs will even lay on your lap and stay as close to you as possible for as long as you need. 

Being sensitive to your feelings, your dog will watch your cues in your eyes, voice, and behavior. With a keen sense of smell, your dog may also be sensitive to changes in your body hormones and chemistry that accompany your moods.

Body Language

Some signs that your dog knows you are sad include:
  • Staring
  • Ears drop
  • Yawning
  • Lip licking
  • Blinking

Other Signs

More clues that your pooch knows you're blue include:
  • Acting sad themselves
  • Loss of appetite
  • Low energy levels
  • Laying at your side

The History of Dogs Knowing We are Sad

At one time, we thought that dogs were animals who functioned based on animal instincts that reach back to the time they were wolves. We have been living with dogs for centuries. The domestication of the dog has been fostered by a complex evolution of factors, biological and behavioral, intertwined. 

Dogs have been selectively bred to meet the needs of humans. The Hounds were bred to hunt. The Collies were bred to help with the herd. The toy dogs were bred to be companions. As man and dog have lived together, dogs have evolved the capacity to tolerate other dogs and to be especially responsive to humans. 

There are biological and social reasons why they are man's best friend. As dogs have lived with humans, they have gained a unique sensitivity towards human body language,  gaze, and gesture. These skills enable dogs to be trained to carry out a multitude of tasks, from herding to guarding to guiding.

The Science of Dogs Knowing We are Sad

Researchers at the University of London recruited 18 dogs and their owners to study the dog's capacity to comfort humans. They wanted to know if dogs would respond differently to human crying or humming sounds. The dogs were of assorted breeds, including Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and mixed breed dogs. The experiments were conducted in the homes of the dogs and owners. 

The researcher went to the homes and ignored the dog, talking to the owner. The owner and researcher took turns making crying sounds and making humming sounds. It was thought that the humming would arouse curiosity in the dog. Of the 18 dogs, 15 dogs would consistently approach the person making the crying sound. 

The researcher concluded that the dogs were responding to the emotion of crying. "The dogs approached whoever was crying regardless of their identity. Thus they were responding to the person's emotion, not their own needs, which is suggestive of empathic-like comfort offering behavior."

The study also found that 13 of the dogs showed submissive behavior when they approached the crying person. It was the emotion of crying and not curiosity that led the dogs to comfort the human. 

Dogs can read their owners. They attend to our scents, words, and signals. Studies have shown that 90 percent of our communication is nonverbal and only 10 percent is verbal. Dogs are astute at reading facial expressions. Remember, too, that dogs are more sensitive to frequencies in sound. 

In another study on the capacity of dogs to interpret human emotions, dogs were shown pictures of dog and human faces in different emotional states. Vocalizations were paired with those images. Sometimes the vocalizations matched the facial expressions. Sometimes they did not.

The dogs paid more attention to the coherent pairings of emotional state in both the dog and human stimuli. These findings were interpreted as more proof that dogs have an internal categorization of emotional states. This capacity to combine emotional cues may have been innate and contributed to their history of adaptability to humans. 

When your dog comes to comfort you, it is not a coincidence. Your dog has a capacity for recognizing and responding to your sadness. 

Training Your Dog to be Empathetic

With insights into the emotional capacity of the dog, we might pause to consider our reciprocity in our relationship to our dog. Dog trainers consistently promote the importance of being positive with your pet. The use of praise and positive reinforcement is always encouraged. 

Further, we must always be reminded that when the dog forgets or fails to comprehend a training step, it is our responsibility to step back and return to earlier steps in the training process to give the dog the opportunity for re-learning. More and more trainers are promoting a respect for the animal and a consideration of how empathy may enter into our training practices. 

Empathy is defined as the capacity to understand or feel what another being (human or non-human) is experiencing from within the frame of reference of the other. It is the capacity to place oneself in another's position. How, then, might your behavior toward your dog be impacted if you were to consider your behavior from the perspective of your dog?

Does your dog receive consistent and positive messages from you? Do you properly care for your dog, providing veterinary check-ups, appropriate shelter, and a balanced diet? Is your dog kept clean and groomed, free of mats or insect bites? Do you use harsh measures to train your dog or are you appreciative of your dog's limitations? Do you respect your dog enough to provide appropriate boundaries and obedience training? To train with empathy is to appreciate the age and disposition of the animal and to provide structures according to those needs. 


How to React to Your Dog Knowing When You are Sad:

  • Pay attention to your dog's energy level and disposition.
  • Learn the triggers for stress and anxiety in your dog and take pro-active measures to make your dog feel secure.
  • Provide your dog a safe place in the home - a crate or dog bed to go to for rest and security.
  • Respect that age of the dog and changes that will occur due to developmental changes or aging processes.
  • Try not to emit negative energy for too long, knowing how this impacts them.