Dogs have long been considered to be man’s best friend. A best friend is someone who understands you, respects you, and loves you. Naturally, it’s easy to think that dogs must understand our emotions and feelings when we call them our best friends! But do they really understand us? Can they understand when something is wrong, when we are hurting, sad, upset, or happy?
Most people believe dogs do understand our emotions. Though the extent of this understanding varies among people, most do agree that dogs at least recognize our different emotions, even if they do not understand what they mean.
When you come home after a long, stressful day at work and you just need a good cry, spend some time with your beautiful dog – they truly do make us feel better!
Whether or not your dog understands that you are sad, your dog definitely knows something is off and wants to be there for you!
Often I’ve had a bad day and feel miserable and my dog will come and sit at my feet and rest up against me. I can’t say for certain that it’s because he knows I’m sad, but it definitely seems that way.
I’ve also heard that some dogs find it too difficult to process their owner’s strong sad emotions, and will actually go the other way and find their own space.
But let’s look at what the science says…
Can dogs understand how we communicate?
It’s pretty clear to any dog lover out there that dogs can understand some human forms of communication. Just think about all the tricks we can teach them just by using our language! In one study, it was proven that dogs can understand other forms of human communication, too.
The researchers in this particular study compared the comprehension skills of chimpanzees compared to dogs. To test this, a human would point at an object that was just out of their reach but within reach of the dog or the chimp.
The dogs would often fetch the object and return it to the human, but the chimps had no idea what to do. This study shows that dogs have an excellent handle on how humans communicate with their bodies, whereas chimps don’t even fully understand all the forms of human communication.
So, do dogs understand when we are upset?
Some research has shown that dogs do feel distressed when their human is visibly upset. Many dogs will even attempt to do something to help. Most recently, a research study was done at the University of London.
In the study, owners and dogs were separated by a lightweight, transparent door. Owners would hum, talk, or pretend to cry. The researchers found that dogs were far more likely to try to get access to their owner if their owner was crying.
They would also respond with submissive behavior like tucking their tail and bowing their heads as they approached their owners.
Some might argue that the dogs were simply curious because the owners were making noise. However, when the human was talking or humming, the dogs were far less likely to approach or show any interest or response.
The dog’s interest was usually only piqued by the crying and not by humming or talking. If it had been a case of mere curiosity, the dogs would have responded equally to both sounds. Instead, crying seemed to carry a greater meaning to the dog and evoke a stronger response from them.
In fact, in many cases, the dogs would get visibly upset and stressed out when their humans acted like they were crying. The dogs who found a way to open the door and get close to their human to “rescue” them, so to speak, were far less stressed and upset than the dogs who couldn’t or wouldn’t open the door.
The dogs who exhibited signs of distress seemed only to get more stressed until they were reunited with their owners. It was almost like they couldn’t think straight and take action because they were so upset their owners were upset.
In another research study done in Vienna, researchers proved that dogs could recognize the facial cues of humans just by looking at photographs. They could recognize these expressions both in their own humans in their lives and in people they had never seen before.
If the person in the photograph had a happy face, the dogs would have a positive reaction, whereas if the person had a sad or angry face, the dog would have a negative reaction.
Do dogs understand us, or are they just reacting?
Some think that dogs are experiencing something called emotional contagion when they react to us crying. The theory of emotional contagion suggests that dogs are able to recognize and respond to our emotions, but they may not really understand, at least not fully, what that person is feeling.
So, for example, if you are crying and your dog comes over and licks you, it may not be because your dog knows you are sad, but instead, your dog recognizes that something is different and is reacting to our less common emotions.
Dogs can understand our emotions just by the sound
We all know that dogs have amazing hearing, right? But did you know that dogs can even recognize different emotions just from the sounds they hear?
At the University of Bari Aldo Moro in Italy, new research has concluded that dogs can categorize sounds they hear into positive or negative categories.
In the study, a dog would enter a room where a bowl of food was in the middle, with two speakers set on either side of the dog. As the dog eats, the speakers would play out human sounds like laughter, screaming, and crying.
Based on the way the dogs would turn their heads, the researchers were able to determine which side of the brain the dog was interpreting the sound.
If the dog turned its head towards the right speaker, it would indicate that it was processing the sound with the left side of its brain, meaning that the dog viewed the sound as positive. If the dog turned its head towards the left speaker, it meant that the dog was processing the sound with the right side of its brain, meaning that the dog viewed the sound as negative.
The dogs interpreted laughter and other happy sounds with the left side of their brain, which indicated that they interpreted the sounds as positive! And similarly, the dogs tilted their heads to the left upon hearing screams or crying, indicating that they viewed the sound as a negative emotion.
Further evaluation proved this theory by examining the dog’s body language during the process, like tail wagging and yawning as well as the dog’s heart rate.
How do dogs show understanding and empathy?
- Provide comfort by giving kisses (licking), putting a paw on their owner, or laying their head in their owner’s lap.
- Some may give their owner space when they sense emotions heading in a negative direction.
- Some dogs might try to distract their owner by trying to get them to go outside or to play ball.
- May exhibit submissive body language, like tucking their tail and bowing their head as they approach their owner.
Encourage your dog
If your dog is showing signs that they understand your emotions and want to help, encourage them! Having a bond like this with your dog is a special part of dog ownership.
When your pup comes over to give you kisses to try to make you feel better, encourage your pup by giving pets, belly rubs, and kind words! And even if you aren’t thrilled by doggie kisses, give your dog a few pats anyways and let them know that they are the best doggo ever.
You might also like to read our post My Dog Won’t Greet Me: (No welcome home party)
While there are no definitive answers as of yet, it is still pretty clear that dogs understand tears and crying to the extent that they are more negative emotions. It hasn’t necessarily been proven yet that dogs have empathy, but they certainly can be perceptive about our emotions.
And when your dog comes over to lay its paw on your lap and give you big, wet, slobbery kisses, you almost have to believe that the dog has empathy and wants to help make you feel better!
Or, if your pup is the type to try to distract you by getting you to play, embrace it even if you are sad. It will make your dog happy to think that they are helping you feel better, and you might even actually start to feel better as you continue to play with your dog!
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