Have you ever started crying and looked down to find your dog right by your side? Whenever I’m upset, my dog Ralph puts her chin on my knee and looks up into my eyes as if to say, “I’m here for you!”
It seems like my dog can sense my moods, and wants to comfort me when I feel bad. But how do dogs know know when we’re upset? Are they responding to our emotions, our body language, or something else altogether? Read on to learn how dogs know to comfort people.
Do dogs show empathy?
Dogs are sensitive to human behavior, body language, and emotions. But do dogs feel what we feel?
Scientists disagree about whether or not dogs have empathy. Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition (and even their emotions) from their perspective. Think of it as putting yourself in someone else’s mental and emotional shoes.
According to an article in Psychology Today, adult dogs have a mind similar to that of a human toddler, with about the same the mental abilities, vocabulary, and emotional intelligence. Toddlers aren’t quite capable of empathy, so it’s possible dogs aren’t, either. Whether or not they fully empathize with us, there’s no question that dogs react to humans’ emotional states.
Scientific studies support the idea that dogs are sensitive to emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is when an individual responds to the emotions of another without fully understanding what they are feeling. In other words, your dog may not know exactly how you feel, but they know you’re feeling something. They comfort you because they can tell you feel poorly, even if they don’t fully understand how or why. Get a deeper look inside your dog’s mind with The Intelligence of Dogs by Dr. Stanley Coren.
How dogs read our emotions
Anyone who has a dog knows how sensitive they can be. But how do dogs know when people are sad? As it turns out, there a few different ways. Check out the book Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz for more on how dogs understand their world.
- Facial expressions. A 2015 study found that dogs can distinguish angry and happy expressions in humans. While they may not know exactly what the expressions mean, they can tell the difference
- Voice. According to a study conducted at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, dogs have “voice areas” in their brains similar to humans’. “Voice areas” are parts of the brain that process the emotional information carried through sound. In other words, your dog can tell the difference between your happy voice and your depressed voice (and you can tell the difference between their vocalizations, too)!
- Smell. Dogs have incredible senses of smell, which may help them pick up on biochemical changes related to moods (similar to how some dogs can “smell” illness).
- Body language. Dogs are very sensitive to how humans hold their body. Your posture, the way you tilt your head, and the way you walk all help your dog determine your mood.
Sensory facts aside, there are still mysteries around how and why dogs comfort humans. Plenty of studies show that dogs react to human emotions, but few have decisively answered the questions of how and why. However, if your dog comforts you when you’re crying, perhaps you don’t need to know the reason why. Just enjoy having a sensitive, loving companion.
How dogs comfort humans
You can probably list off several ways your dog comforts you when you’re feeling blue. In fact, the ways dogs comfort people are not too different from the ways people comfort dogs!
Your dog’s reactions to your emotional distress may include:
- Physical contact. This is probably the most popular method of comfort between dogs and people.
- Distraction. Some dogs will put a toy in your lap, or nudge you and look to the door to ask for some time outside. Think of it as your dog saying “Hey! Don’t feel sad! Let’s do this fun thing instead!”
- Exercise. This one isn’t always intentional on your dog’s part, but it’s a proven fact that having a dog keeps you more active. Physical activity eases symptoms of depression and anxiety. So if you’re going through a rough spell, remember to keep walking the dog!
- “Time out.” Of course, your dog doesn’t lead you to your crate for some alone time. But some dogs, when they sense distressed emotions from a person, know to give you space until you’re ready to be around them again.
The greatest comfort dogs provide is companionship. In fact, “professional” therapy comfort dogs are trained just to sit quietly with people, offering silent, nonjudgmental support.
Why dogs are such effective comforts
So, dogs notice and intentionally respond to our emotions. And we all know what great comforts they can be. But what is it about dogs that is so comforting? According to researchers, one reason dogs are such amazing companions to humans is that they’re not human, themselves.
Human relationships can be complicated by language, expectation, and judgement. But with dogs, the relationship is less complicated. Dogs are simply loyal, loving, and comforting, without demanding anything in return. If you’re going through a hard time, having a completely nonjudgemental, non-verbal, loyal companion can be an incredible help
Of course, every dog is different, and some are more comforting than others. If your dog isn’t the type to come running when you cry, don’t feel bad. Your relationship with your dog is complex and unique. As long as you take care of your dog, they’ll take care of you in their way.
This article only touches the surface of the fascinating world of the dog-human bond. In addition to Stanley Coren and Alexandra Horowitz‘ work, we highly recommend Patricia McConnell’s For the Love of a Dog for more insight into the emotional relationships between dogs and people.
Header image via flickr/caspargirl