By Dr. Becker
If your dog seems concerned when you cry, chances are you’re not imagining things. New research indicates dogs actually respond in a unique way to human tears.
Researchers at the University of London found dogs are more apt to approach a person who is crying than one who is talking or humming. And even more interesting is that the dogs in their study1 displayed submissive behaviors with people who were crying.
The researchers used humming because it’s a relatively unique behavior the dogs probably had not been exposed to. It would be a curiosity for them and pique their interest. According to study researcher and psychologist Deborah Custance, “The fact that the dogs differentiated between crying and humming indicates that their response to crying was not purely driven by curiosity. Rather, the crying carried greater emotional meaning for the dogs and provoked a stronger overall response than either humming or talking."
Your Dog May Be Trying to Comfort You
Custance and Jennifer Mayer, the University of London researchers, recruited 18 dogs and their owners for their experiment. The dogs were Labrador retrievers, Golden retrievers, a few other popular breeds, and mixed breeds.
The experiments were conducted in the dog owners’ living rooms. Mayer would visit each home and ignore the dog so it would quickly lose interest in her. Then she took turns with the owner talking, pretending to cry, and humming.
Of the 18 dogs, 15 approached their owner or Mayer while they were pretending to cry. Only six approached while either was humming. These results suggest it’s the emotion of crying, not curiosity, that prompted the dogs to respond.
Even more fascinating is that the dogs always approached the person who was crying – not the quiet one. This seems to indicate the dogs were trying to provide comfort rather than seek it.
"The dogs approached whoever was crying regardless of their identity. Thus they were responding to the person's emotion, not their own needs, which is suggestive of empathic-like comfort-offering behavior," Mayer concluded.
Is Your Dog Showing Empathy?
Thirteen of the 15 dogs who approached the crying person displayed submissive body language, tucking their tails or bowing the heads. (The remaining two showed alert or playful behavior.)
Submission is another behavior consistent with empathy. However, the University of London research team was careful to explain their study provides no definitive answers as to whether dogs truly feel empathy. They do think their experiment paves the way for more study of the emotional lives of dogs.