Does My Dog Know When I'm Sad?

There have been times in your life when you've been upset. Perhaps you've cried in the comfort of your home or walked around the house with a sad face on. You're not sure of it, but you swear that your dog intuitively knows that you are not feeling great.

A sad woman and a dog sitting next to her
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Your pup may be cuddling with you more, look at you with sad eyes, lick your face or be by your side when you're in bed or on the couch. You've heard that dogs can detect cancer and other types of illnesses, but are they in tune with our emotions as well? Do they really know when we are sad?

Can dogs detect sadness?

There is conflicting evidence regarding whether or not dogs can detect sadness and have empathy for humans.

In the journal Animal Cognition, researchers from the University of London discovered that dogs are more likely to go up to a crying person rather than someone who is chatting or humming. Dogs will also act more submissive when they see that somebody is crying. The researchers concluded that it is not clear, however, that dogs know when we are in pain.

Sad woman sitting on a kitchen floor with her dog
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While other research has shown that dogs are very smart when it comes to human communication, there was no conclusive evidence that they feel empathy or the pain of others. For instance, in one study, owners faked heart attacks and acted as if they were pinned underneath furniture, and their dogs did not attempt to help them.

In another study, however, the evidence was there to support the fact that dogs can feel humans' pain. In a study from the journal Learning & Behavior, researchers from Johns Hopkins University pretended to be trapped behind a door. They alternated between crying and humming a lullaby, and found that their cries compelled the dogs to rush over. When researchers hummed, the dogs were not in a hurry to help.

Dogs put humans first

The Learning & Behavior study proves just what we all already know: dogs are extremely loyal to people. When the people behind the doors were crying out, the dogs' stress levels went up, but they were able to pull it together and push open the door with their noses. Some dogs had stress levels that were so high— like a human would if faced with the same situation— that they were unable to take action.

One of the researchers from the study, Emily Sanford of Johns Hopkins University, said, "Dog owners can tell that their dogs sense their feelings. Our findings reinforce that idea, and show that, like Lassie, dogs who know their people are in trouble might spring into action."

girl embracing her dog, studio shot
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Emotional contagion in dogs

Instead of empathy, research suggests that dogs have something called emotional contagion. This means they are responding to your feelings without fully realizing what you are going through. For instance, if you're crying, your young child may give you a hug, but he doesn't know what you're experiencing. Rather, he is trying to comfort himself in this situation. With dogs, it's the same. They need some reassurance if they see you are sad. Other research suggests that dogs will respond to you if you're sad because they are curious.

Whatever research you find, there is no denying that dogs have some kind of instinct and will react if you are crying around them. It may not matter to you that they don't exactly have empathy, as long as they are there when you need them. And, of course, dogs are always at our side when we need them the most.