Dogs want to give comfort to people when they are upset. It seems like a fact dog lovers have known for a very long time, and now a new study backs them up.
Scientists at the University of London conducted a study that revealed dogs truly do respond to human tears and will naturally try and reassure a distressed person. It also turns out dogs will try and comfort anyone who cries, not just their owner.
Researchers filmed 18 dogs of various breeds at the homes of their owner. One of the researchers ignored the dog and started to either talk, hum loudly or pretend to cry. Fifteen of the dogs stopped what they were doing and went over to the crying person and displayed submissive behavior when approaching.
"The dogs approached whoever was crying regardless of their identity...they were responding to the person's emotion, not their own needs, which is suggestive of empathic-like comfort-offering behavior," Jennifer Mayer, one of the authors of the study, said.
The youngest dog in the experiment was an 8-month old Labrador Retriever. As soon as the puppy heard Mayer pretent to cry, he rushed up and put his paws on her shoulder.
"Crying carried greater emotional meaning for the dogs and provoked a stronger overall response than either humming or talking," said Mayer. "Regardless of whether it was their owner or the stranger, when an individual cried most of the dogs went up to them in a quiet, submissive way suggesting comfort-giving."
The dogs also went directly up to the stranger and did not seek to be comforted themselves. This dog behavior is relatively sophisticated and puts dogs on par with toddlers, who will try to comfort someone in distress by hugging them or giving them a toy.
Mayer pointed out: "They didn’t go up to their owner when the stranger cried, which would have been seeking comfort for their own distress rather like infants who cry when another baby cries. They were responding to the person's emotion, not their own needs."
Although there is no way to know for sure if dogs can understand why someone is sad and needs comforting, the study does point that dogs have complex responses to human emotions, and paves the way for more study into a dog's emotions.
The study is published online May 30 in the journal of Animal Cognition.