If you’ve ever owned a dog, you’ve probably noticed their uncanny ability to comfort you when you’re feeling down or even ill. Many dogs will approach their owners and give them kisses or curl up next to them.
These behaviors certainly suggest that our dogs know what we are feeling. However, has any of this actually been scientifically proven? Are dogs genuinely able to sense our emotions, or have we inadvertently trained them to approach us when we’re distressed by offering love and praise when they do?
Today, we will explore research about dogs and their potential to empathize. If you’ve ever wondered whether or not dogs can sense emotions like anxiety or depression, then keep reading.
Dogs Want to Comfort You
A study published in the journal Learning & Behavior in 2018 suggests that many dogs want to comfort their humans. Unfortunately, the dogs that don’t outwardly show concern are often so affected by their owners’ distress that they become unable to offer help.
The study placed owners behind a glass door held closed by magnets that could be opened easily by the dogs. Owners participated in a control trial where they simply hummed and a test trial where they pretended to cry.
Because most dogs naturally want to be with their owners, they were not more likely to go through the door if their owners were crying. However, they did go through the door significantly faster when their owners cried than when they hummed, suggesting that the dogs recognized distress and wanted to help.
Some of the dogs that didn’t go through the door displayed stressed behaviors as if their owners’ distress was contagious to them. Researchers believed that the stress the dogs felt paralyzed them and rendered them unable to comfort their owners.
The researchers involved with the study feel that it provides evidence that dogs can feel empathy and are susceptible to emotional contagion and that this sometimes drives them to help their owners. However, the dogs must be able to suppress the stressful emotions that blossom in them due to their owners’ distress; otherwise, they are too overwhelmed to help.
Dogs Are Not Driven by Selfishness or Reward
Many researchers have often wondered if a dog’s response to someone showing distress is inadvertently conditioned. For example, the first time your dog sees you cry, they may be curious about this unknown behavior.
When they approach you, they are rewarded with pets and love since their approach is often seen as sweet or comforting. Therefore, the approach has been reinforced. The next time they see your sad face, they’ll repeat the behavior and get rewarded with pets and attention again, and the cycle continues.
While it is true that dogs are incredible observers and associative learners, there is some evidence that dogs will approach distressed people out of empathy rather than personal gain.
A study published in the journal Animal Cognition tested dogs’ responses to crying and humming individuals. One individual was the dog’s owner, whereas the other was a complete stranger; they would then take turns humming or crying. The point of humming was to see if dogs would approach them out of curiosity, as it was likely a behavior the dog had not witnessed before.
Of 18 dogs, 15 approached their owner or the stranger while crying. Only six approached their owner or the stranger while they were humming. Researchers involved with this study feel that the dogs’ reactions were based on emotional content rather than curiosity, which further suggests that dogs act out of empathy by approaching distressed individuals with comfort-offering behaviors.
Furthermore, researchers felt that the dogs were not acting for their own benefit. If the dogs themselves were seeking comfort, they would have been more likely to approach the calm individual. However, even when the stranger was crying, the dogs approached the stranger rather than their owners.
Dogs Can Be Affected by Your Emotions
Studies have shown that dogs can be directly affected (or perhaps we should say infected) by their owners’ stress and anxiety. In one study, 58 dog-human pairings had their cortisol levels tested (cortisol is a stress hormone). The owners were also asked to survey their dogs’ activity levels and personalities.
It was found that cortisol levels in the dogs reflected their owners’ mental states. For example, if an owner suffered from anxiety, the dog’s cortisol levels were higher. In general, the dogs had similar cortisol levels to their owners. The study also found that the stress the dog was feeling seemed completely unrelated to their personality, training, or activity levels.
Rather, the stress measured in the dogs largely depended on their owner’s stress levels. It was found that female dogs showed a slightly stronger correlation with their owner’s cortisol levels than male dogs.
Another study published in Physiology & Biology in 2015 provides similar results. In this study, dog owners and their dogs had their cortisol levels measured before and after a competition. Once again, it was found that there was an association between the handlers and the dogs’ cortisol levels. In addition, both were elevated to similar levels after competing.
The study looked at other factors, such as the human’s behavior toward the dog, like whether or not they displayed punitive or affiliative behavior after the competition. The owners also completed a questionnaire where they rated their performance in the competition. However, none of these factors appeared to affect either the humans’ or the dogs’ cortisol levels.
These studies and the previous studies we shared further cement the idea that dogs are subject to emotional contagion. Emotional contagion describes when one person’s emotions lead to similar emotions in someone else (in this case, in dogs!).
If our emotions are indeed contagious to dogs, then it would be fair to assume that dogs are able to sense emotions such as depression or anxiety. Dogs may not be able to experience those emotions the same way we do, but if they observe us in distress and become distressed as well, it is fair to say that they know something is amiss. Dogs that can suppress the negative emotions we’ve spread to them are then able to comfort us.
Dogs Can Smell Your Fear
We’ve heard time and time again that animals can “smell” our fear. It’s often a line in movies during a suspenseful scene where one must be brave while hiding from or facing off against some manner of a dangerous beast. But is it true that animals can smell our fear, and if so, can dogs?
The answer appears to be yes. In 2017, a study was published that observed whether or not dogs could sense our emotions using their noses. This study collected sweat samples from men who were unrelated to the dog and would not otherwise be participating in the study.
The samples were collected while the men were in states of fear, happiness, and neutrality (as a control). When the dogs smelled the fearful sweat, they became fearful as well.
They sought comfort from their owners, made less social contact with the stranger in the room, and showed higher signs of stress than when they had smelled happy or neutral sweat. The dogs’ heart rates were also found to be higher.
Considering that anxiety can make you feel fearful, it is possible that a dog could smell this change in your body chemistry and either be affected by emotional contagion or attempt to comfort you.
Dogs Can Tell When You’re Sick
Although depression and anxiety are mental in nature, they can be affected by physical illness. Many people develop anxiety or depression due to struggles with physical illness. Dogs have been found to accurately detect illnesses such as cancer.
Dogs also have the ability to detect epileptic seizures up to 45 minutes before they occur and, for this reason, can be trained as service dogs to give warnings to people before they experience seizures. Similarly, dogs are able to identify and warn patients when their blood sugar or blood pressure drops too low. More recently, dogs were even being trained to detect COVID-19.
All of this is done using their incredible sense of smell. Dogs’ sense of smell is so powerful that they can even detect cadavers under 80+ feet of water. Talk about mind-blowing!
Therefore, it is really no surprise that many dogs seem to know when their humans aren’t feeling well. Energetic dogs who usually beg for attention may opt to curl up next to their resting owners, and others may simply try to provide comfort by coming near.
Dogs can smell your fear and can smell many different types of illnesses. So it isn’t a stretch to hypothesize that they can use their nose to sense emotions like anxiety and depression.
Can Dogs Sense Depression and Anxiety?
So, can dogs actually sense depression and anxiety? The answer is likely yes. Dogs have a myriad of tools that help them do so. Not only are they good at observing and recognizing a human’s facial expressions and tying them to certain emotions or outcomes (i.e., getting petted when they approach you when you’re crying), but they may also be capable of empathy.
Dogs have been observed both anecdotally and scientifically to respond to those showing signs of distress. These responses either include comfort-offering behavior or becoming just as distressed as their owners (of course, there are some dogs who don’t seem phased at all).
We’ve also seen that when dogs approach a crying human, they do not seem to be doing so out of curiosity or out of their own desire for comfort. Instead, they genuinely seem to want to help in some way.
Even more interesting is that dogs seem to experience the emotions we are feeling, even if they experience them differently (we do not actually know if dogs feel emotions the same way we do!). Basically, when we are distressed, dogs become affected by our emotions and feel distressed as well. This is called emotional contagion.
On top of this, scientists have observed dogs to have similar cortisol levels to their owners. This suggests that our own stress is very much noticed by our dogs and stressing them out, too!
Finally, we cannot forget dogs’ incredible sense of smell. They are able to detect many different physical illnesses with the help of their noses, and studies have found that they can also smell fear.
With all of this in mind, it feels like we would be doing dogs a disservice if we said they could not sense depression and anxiety.