How Dogs Know to Comfort us
Posted by Irene Keliher on 12th May 2021
It often seems that our dogs can sense our moods. Have you ever felt upset, and then looked down to find that your dog has run over to you? Recent research has delved into the nature of this bond. Are dogs responding to our feelings, our body language, or something else? Read on to find out more about how dogs have learned to comfort humans.
All about dogs and empathy
Dogs are sensitive to us. But do dogs feel what we feel?
Researchers disagree about whether or not dogs have empathy. Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's condition from their point of view. In other words, it means putting yourself in someone else's shoes.
Most adult dogs have qualities like those of a human toddler, with about the same the mental abilities, vocabulary, and emotional savvy. Toddlers don’t quite possess true empathy, so it's possible dogs don’t, either. Whether or not they fully empathize with us, though, there's no question that dogs react to our emotions.
Scientists generally agree that dogs experience emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is about responding to the emotions of someone else without fully understanding the feeling. Your dog may not know exactly how you feel, but they sense its strength. Dogs comfort you, therefore, even if they don't fully understand how or why.
How Dogs Understand Emotions
Here are some of the things dogs notice and respond to when it comes to human emotions.
- Facial expressions. This study found that dogs know the difference between angry and happy expressions in humans. You’ve probably experienced this if you ever came home, took a look at the mess your dog made, and glared—only to have your dog respond with submission or a “guilty” look.
- Voice. According to this study, dogs have "voice areas" in their brains similar to ours. "Voice areas" are parts of the brain that process the emotional information carried through sound. So, yes, your dog can tell the difference between your happy voice and your sad voice.
- Smell. Dogs have amazing senses of smell, which might even help them sniff out biochemical changes related to moods (similar to how some dogs can "smell" illness).
- Body language. Dogs notice a lot about how humans hold their bodies. Your posture, the way you move your arms, and the way you walk all help your dog determine your mood.
These facts aside, there are still mysteries about how and why dogs comfort humans. Plenty of studies show that dogs react to human emotions, but few can really explain away questions of how and why. However, if your dog comforts you when you're feeling blue, it may not matter much to you. Simply enjoy having a sensitive, loving companion.
Dogs comfort us in a variety of ways
You can probably name many ways that your dog comforts you when you're feeling down. In fact, the ways dogs comfort people are not too different from the ways people comfort dogs!
Your dog's reactions to your sad or upset mood may include:
- Physical contact. We’re familiar with the sweet “dog lean” or head nudge.
- Distraction. Some dogs will put a toy in your lap, or look to the door to ask for some time outside. Think of it as your dog saying "Don't feel bad! Let's have fun instead!"
- Exercise. It's a fact that having a dog keeps you more active, and that physical activity eases symptoms of depression and anxiety. So if you're going through a hard time, remember to keep walking the dog!
- "Time out."Some dogs, when they sense upsetting emotions from a person, actually know to give you space until you're ready to be around them again.
Bottom line? The greatest comfort dogs provide is companionship. In fact, real life therapy comfort dogs are trained just to sit quietly with people, offering silent, non-judgmental support.
Here’s why dogs are the best companions
Yes, indeed, dogs notice and respond to our emotions. And we all know how comforting they can be.
But what is it about dogs that is so comforting? According to researchers, one reason dogs are such wonderful companions to humans is that they're not human.
Yes, you read that right. Human relationships are complicated by language, expectation, and judgement. But with dogs, it’s all much simpler. Dogs are faithful, loving, and attentive, without wanting much in return. Having a non-judgmental, non-verbal, loyal companion is a surefire ticket towards feeling better (at least, eventually).
Every dog is unique, and some are more comforting than others. If your dog doesn’t always come running when you cry, don't worry. Your relationship with your dog is special and unique—and you probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
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