Can Dogs Sense Sadness?
Studies have shown that dogs are more likely to go up to a person who is crying than one who is displaying more ‘upbeat’ behaviours like humming.
It is a fair assumption that some of this behavior may be attributed to conditioning, where dogs receive rewards from their owners when they offer comfort. However, a dog’s response to behaviours associated with sadness, such as facial expression, goes even further.
Dogs have been found to respond to other dogs in pain or distress – originating the term ‘therapy dog’. When dogs comfort fellow dogs, it shows understanding on an emotional level.
When this understanding translates outside of the species to humans, it is possible that dogs are sensitive to emotional change expressed by sound and body language.
Whether their response stems from a compassionate or empathetic reaction is still unclear. Empathy would require that dogs understand the reason behind a moment of sadness, while compassion would mean the dog reacts purely to comfort their human in a time of need, regardless of the reason.
The relationship between a dog’s reaction to sadness and conditioning may be traced back to the inherent pack mentality – identifying humans as their caregivers and therefore members of the pack. Dogs may be engaging in a reciprocal relationship with their human caregivers, caring for their pack in turn.