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Canine Empathy: Can Barn Dogs Sense Sadness?

dog sense emotions

Note: This article was originally published on our sister site Love & Let Go.

Understanding Canine Empathy and Dogs’ Desire to Comfort Us

It’s been a rough day. You finally turn out the last horse of the day and collapse on the porch. Emotionally exhausted and bummed by a frustrating ride, you begin to cry. Suddenly, amid your tears, you feel the familiar furry warmth of your farm dog cuddling up beside you. Sniffling, you tell him, “Thanks buddy, I needed that.”

But why exactly did your dog come over? Did he know you were sad? Did he want to comfort you after a long day? Or was he simply bored and wanting attention?

Understanding dogs and emotions is a moving target. We’ll likely never know precisely how canine emotions compare to those of humans, but we know enough to make some educated assumptions. Recent studies and continuing research suggest that dogs do, in fact, experience some level of empathy—and they have a desire to comfort us when we’re sad.

How Humans Express Sadness

Emotions are a major part of how we, as humans, communicate with one another.

From a young age, infants experience and convey their own emotions, even before they really understand how or why. They can also perceive the emotions of others revealed through words, tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions.

While our emotional expressions vary, and may be influenced by culture or background, studies have shown that the experience of emotion seems to be innately hard-wired into the human brain.

In fact, many scientists go as far as to categorize specific universal emotions—including sadness.

Think about when you’re feeling sad. How do you act? How do you know when someone else is sad?

Some people withdraw to themselves, while others are more vocal and cry with visible tears. Others may struggle as their thought-processes begin to move slower than usual, while some have trouble with words or appear lethargic.

With so many ways to communicate emotion, it’s not always easy to know what someone is feelingyet dogs seem to be able to do just that.

Canine Powers of Observation

Dogs have long been praised for their acute observational skills and highly developed senses—just like horses tune into our very energy!

Many dogs are employed to help humans by using their sense of smell to track down criminals or missing persons (even deep underground after an earthquake!), seeking out dangerous explosives, or detecting drugs and toxic substances. Dogs can also hear sounds that are too soft or high-pitched for humans to register.

Recently, scientists have discovered that domestic dogs have another powerful sense: dogs can recognize emotions not only in other dogs, but in humans as well.

By observing our facial expressions, voice intonations, smells, and body language, dogs can detect our emotions.

A study published in the journal Learning & Behavior showed that dogs recognize and react differently to different emotions, as conveyed through human facial expressions.i At the University of Lincoln (UK), they also demonstrated that dogs can recognize emotional cues through different senses. For example, dogs can combine information they perceive from both human facial expressions and tone of voice.ii

Cognitive psychologist Juliane Kaminski explains that this ability is unique to our canine companions, and that wolves—although a close relative of the dog—don’t seem to recognize human emotion as well as dogs can:

“Wolves, even when raised in a human environment, are not as flexible with human communication as dogs. Dogs can read human gestures from very early ages on.”iii 

dog comforting human

source: canva

The Human-Dog Connection

Why is it that domestic dogs can read human emotion, while wolves—who share nearly 99% of their DNA with domestic dogs—cannot?

While both wolves and dogs have evolved from a shared ancient ancestor, dogs have had a unique relationship with humans for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Archeology finds, and DNA sequencing suggests, that dogs could have been domesticated anywhere from fourteen thousand years ago to even one hundred thousand years earlier.iv

From archeology sites around the world to portraits of wealthy aristocrats and their canine companions, dogs are documented to have evolved right alongside humans.

This may be why dogs can connect to us on a much deeper emotional level than many other species.

When you are sad and your dog puts his paw on your lap, or cuddles beside you, you can feel a sense of this deeper connection.

It might be easy for you to then say, “My dog loves me.” Many dog owners readily admit to loving their dogs as members of the family of course, but can a dog really love us in return?

Behavioral scientist Clive D. L. Wynne directs the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona University. When asked his opinion on whether or not dogs can experience this connection or love for humans, he answered:

“I think the secret to dogs’ success with people is their extravagant capacity for forming strong emotional connections with members of other species. In my scientific writing, I call this ‘hypersocialbility’ or ‘exaggerated gregariousness,’ but it is the same thing that laypeople simply call love. Love is the essence of what makes dogs who they are.”v 

Frequently Asked Questions

Why does my dog comfort me when I cry?

In one study, scientists had dog owners either hum or cry, and then observed how their dogs would respond.

Owners were placed in a room behind a clear door, and then told to cry and yell for help or hum “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” They found that the dogs opened the door much faster for their owners if the owners were crying rather than humming.

Researchers at the University of Lincoln (UK) repeated this study, but with an interesting change—another person sat with the owner, and they took turns talking, crying, or humming.vi

They found that the dogs approached whichever person was crying—whether it was the owner or the stranger—suggesting that the dogs were trying to help or comfort the human in distress:

“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.”vii

If the crying had simply upset the dog, he would go to his owner for comfort, since that is the person he is bonded to. Going to the stranger, however, suggests that dogs do feel empathy, and that they desire to offer comfort and support to humans who are experiencing sadness.

Why does my dog get upset when I cry?

In the studies previously mentioned, researchers also observed that the dogs that did not open the door for their crying owners appeared anxious and upset, suggesting that the owners’ crying caused the dogs’ emotional distress.

If your dog doesn’t come to you when you’re sad, or if your dog runs away when you cry, it’s not because he doesn’t love you—he’s simply upset and unsure how to deal with his emotions.

dogs sense sadness

We get upset when those we love are sad, and so do dogs (Source: Pixabay)

Do dogs know you love them?

It’s impossible to know exactly how our dogs see the world, but the advances in neuropsychology have given us a better idea of what’s going on.

Dr. Brian Hare, author of The Genius of Dogs, asserts:

“Yes, your dogs knows how much you love him! Dogs and humans have a very special relationship, where dogs have actually hijacked the human oxytocin bonding pathway that is normally reserved for our babies. When you stare at your dog, both your oxytocin levels go up, the same as when you pet them and play with them. It makes you both feel good and reinforces your bonding.”viii 

A Powerful Connection

The emotional lives of dogs are extremely complex, to say the least. Like humans, each barn dog has his own individual personality and life experiences, which affect his perceptions and reactions to human emotions.

What we do know, though, is that dogs experience a unique and deep emotional relationship and social bond with humans. They can detect when we are sad, and they want to help comfort us. What could be more pure than that?

P.S. If you found this article helpful, check out:


i) Siniscalchi, M., d’Ingeo, S. & Quaranta, A. Learn Behav (2018) 46: 574. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13420-018-0325-2

ii) University of Lincoln. “A man’s best friend: Study shows dogs can recognize human emotions.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 January 2016. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160112214507.htm>.

iii) Berson, Scott. “Dogs can read your face – and behave differently when you’re upset, scientists say.” Miami Herald. 21 June 2018. <https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/national/article213582084.html>.

iv) Bradshaw, John. Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. Basic Books, 2011.

v) Goodavage, Maria. Doctor Dogs : How Our Best Friends Are Becoming Our Best Medicine. Dutton, 2019.

vi) Sanford, E.M., Burt, E.R. & Meyers-Manor, J.E. Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs. Learn Behav 46, 374–386 (2018) doi:10.3758/s13420-018-0332-3

vii) Custance, Deborah & Mayer, Jennifer. (2012). Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to distress in humans: An exploratory study. Animal cognition. 15. 851-9. 10.1007/s10071-012-0510-1.

viii) Bender, Kelli. “Dogs Mentally Understand How Much We Love Them, Canine Cognition Expert Assures. 27 October 2016. People. <https://people.com/pets/dogs-mentally-understand-how-much-we-love-them-canine-cognition-expert-assures/>

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About the author


Kylie M., M.A. Comparative Studies

Kylie is deeply passionate about animals. She earned a Master’s degree in Comparative Studies and especially loves studying the relationship between humans and companion animals. She shares her home with several companion animals and backyard wildlife, as well as volunteers at local animal shelters. She has cared for and rehabilitated many animals from turtles, geckos, and gerbils to cats, dogs and hedgehogs. Most recently, Kylie lost her sweet Yorkie after an eight-year battle with a liver disorder. She deeply understands pet loss and grief and finds purpose in helping others through the process.