Pets | Science

Dogs Respond To Crying Humans; Seem To Empathize


The animals that became domestic dogs speciated from the gray wolf about 15 millenia ago. Since then, our dogs have come to know us well.

Dr. Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer, of the Department of Psychology at the University of London, sought to discover how well in an experiment chronicled in the May 30th issue of the journal Animal Cognition. What they discovered is that dogs are overwhelmingly more likely to approach people who exhibit visual and audial signs of distress, such as crying, than people who are talking, humming, or being quiet. And when dogs approach weeping humans, they will tend to assume submissive, friendly, comforting postures.


"The humming was designed to be a relatively novel behavior, which might be likely to pique the dogs' curiosity," study researcher and psychologist Deborah Custance said in a statement. "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."

... The experiment took place in the [dog] owners' living rooms. Mayer would arrive and ignore the dog so that it would have little interest in her. Then she and the owner would take turns talking, fake-crying and humming.

Of the 18 dogs in the study, 15 approached their owner or Mayer during crying fits, while only six approached during humming. That suggests that it's emotional content, not curiosity, that brings the dogs running. Likewise, the dogs always approached the crying person, never the quiet person, as one might expect if the dog was seeking (rather than trying to provide) comfort.

"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 said in a statement.

Of the 15 dogs that approached a crying owner or stranger, 13 did so with submissive body language, such as tucked tails and bowed heads, another behavior consistent with empathy (the other two were alert or playful).

The study's authors are quick to point out that just because dogs appear to feel empathy with humans, it does not follow that they actually do.

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  1. Most anyone with a dog knows this. Dogs think that they're responsible for people's moods. When I yell out how stupid a client is, my dog disappears. And when I'm sad or sick, she stays really close.

    The dog pictured looks almost exactly like mine. Must be part or full Rhodesian ridgeback.

    Posted by: Paul R | Jun 10, 2012 12:06:46 PM

  2. And a cat would just urinate in your clean laundry basket if it saw you crying.Dogs are infinitely superior in intelligence and emotional response.

    Posted by: Mark | Jun 10, 2012 12:13:29 PM

  3. @Mark. Why make it a cats vs dogs thing? Both pets make their owners happy.

    Posted by: Mike | Jun 10, 2012 12:18:05 PM

  4. Both cats and dogs are loving creatures. Anyone who has a pet knows this - but scientists just love to research questions that we don't really need statistical evidence for, dont they?

    Posted by: mike128 | Jun 10, 2012 12:20:51 PM

  5. The researchers should account for changes in odor emitted by people in emotional distress as well as the sounds and posture of a crying person. I have no doubt dogs are sensitive to our emotional states, but they may be using cues other than sound.

    Posted by: RWG | Jun 10, 2012 12:31:11 PM

  6. @RWG, I'd say it's almost exclusively based on scent, given that dogs have unbelievable senses of smell---far stronger than their vision or hearing.

    Posted by: Paul R | Jun 10, 2012 12:44:17 PM

  7. ... and then they walked away and ate their own poo.

    Posted by: Michael | Jun 10, 2012 12:44:48 PM

  8. @RWG, since the people were play-acting crying for the purposes of the study their emotional state didn't change and shouldn't have caused any physical/hormonal changes that a dog might "scent."

    Posted by: Caliban | Jun 10, 2012 12:55:20 PM

  9. As a pet owner I appreciate the post. Thanks for sharing it today!

    Posted by: Mickey | Jun 10, 2012 12:56:54 PM

  10. I think it's amazing that so few scientists appear to own dogs. If they did this wouldn't be news. Don't get me wrong: it's fine to study this. I just don't understand why it's presented as an astonishing new discovery.

    Posted by: Ric | Jun 10, 2012 12:59:18 PM

  11. Come on now, RIC and MIKE128: you can't assume scientists don't own dogs because of this research.

    Over the last 50 years or so a lot of what was considered common sense has been debunked by studies that many would have dismissed as foolish to run.

    We'd still be throwing salt over our shoulders otherwise.

    Posted by: Sean in Dallas | Jun 10, 2012 1:26:13 PM

  12. I am disabled from chronic back pain and weird walking at times. My dogs know when its a bad day for me and lie down next to me. I have a special cat that lays down on the parts that are sore. Love them.

    Posted by: Greg Thomas | Jun 10, 2012 1:31:10 PM

  13. @RWG and @Caliban: Your two points combined are pretty much what I was thinking.
    Were these people play-acting or were they actually sad. (Being asked to say "boo-hoo-hoo" might result in a very different real emotional state than, for example, if a participant was asked to "close your eyes and describe in detail the day your daughter died last month."
    If these people were not emotionally distressed but, rather, play-acting sadness with sights and sounds familiar to humans, we could guess that the dog might be seeking out (or smelling) for other cues that we don't tend to notice and might react differently to a real situation in which his human friend is sad.

    Posted by: GregV | Jun 10, 2012 1:34:56 PM

  14. Tell me something I didn't already know.

    Posted by: MateoM | Jun 10, 2012 1:46:10 PM

  15. @GregV: Some people can cry convincingly. I can do it at the drop of a hat. The smell emitted would be the same.

    Posted by: Paul R | Jun 10, 2012 1:55:01 PM

  16. This isn't even news and pet owners know this.

    Posted by: Sam | Jun 10, 2012 2:17:00 PM

  17. God, I hate the assholes who denigrate animals and try to somehow make this study seem useless. Those people should not be allowed around other people, much less dogs and other pets.

    Posted by: Bobby | Jun 10, 2012 2:30:26 PM

  18. Whenever I tell my cat in a loving voice that she doesn't know anything, that no one likes her and that if she can't say nincompoop she is one she just looks at me in her sweet way and goes back to sleep. Isn't that some kind of study? How about an award?

    Posted by: UFFDA | Jun 10, 2012 2:34:16 PM

  19. Instead of saying: This research supports what dog owners have asserted for centuries that dogs sense their emotions and feel empathy for them.

    They end it by saying:
    The study's authors are quick to point out that just because dogs appear to feel empathy with humans, it does not follow that they actually do.

    So if you are going to do research that proves nothing and therefore means nothing why do it? Science is suppose to prove things and since you will never be a dog you can never "prove" a dog has empathy. This is why science is being so discredited. Why so many people view it with suspicion. Everything must fit in its box or it is suspect.

    Posted by: Joey | Jun 10, 2012 2:38:24 PM

  20. Ok, I was just trying to bring a little humor but that was a total fail. Sorry. I have had a few cats and they were incredible animals, but I now have 3 rescue dogs that are seriously responsive and incredibly intelligent, especially my border collie. All animals have value, how we treat them is a reflection of who we really are and I am sorry I said mean things about cats!

    Posted by: Mark | Jun 10, 2012 2:39:08 PM

  21. I really don't see the point of spending money on studying things we already know.

    Posted by: William | Jun 10, 2012 2:56:34 PM

  22. @Paul R: i don't know what sadness and distress smell like (since I only have a human nose), but taking a wild stab at it, I would guess it might smell like cortisol, since humans emit that hormone when distressed.
    I'm not aware of any studies on whether actors' hormones actually change by playing an emotion, but if they exist I'd be interested to know (and if they don't, it might make a good masters thesis).

    I did a monologue once after which a drama teacher praised me for almost making him cry. But I feel very sure that inside of me the level of distress and hormonal secretions were nothing close to the physiological changes I would have felt if the sad events described in the monologue had been true.
    Maybe I WAS physiologically changing at least a little bit and a dog would have smelled that, but I don't know how I'd know that.

    Posted by: Gregv | Jun 10, 2012 3:08:06 PM

  23. Regarding whether the dogs used scent to know which person to approach, it depends on what you mean by "crying." If they are drawn by the scent of tears, something in their chemical composition, then emotional state is irrelevant. But that seems unlikely. People cry for reasons unrelated to emotion all the time. Allergies, chopping onions, something in their eyes, etc. and dogs (in my experience) don't come running.

    It also seems unlikely that the subjects were experiencing true emotional distress or upset, which *might* release a physical scent. The researcher and the dog owner took turns "crying" to see which one the dog approached, and that would seem to rule out real emotion instead of play acting. Even someone who can "cry convincingly" is acting; the emotions don't match the calculated action.

    Yes dogs have an incredible sense of smell, but it's not their only sense and they are no slouch in the hearing department: dog whistles, hearing a siren or car WAY before humans do, etc. So it seems to me the most likely answer is they respond to the sound and sight of a person crying instead of other sensory info.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Posted by: Caliban | Jun 10, 2012 3:13:30 PM

  24. I don't cry as an actor. I cry as a person. And for the record, it's not something I try to do often. But they're real tears.

    Posted by: Paul R | Jun 10, 2012 3:19:59 PM

  25. I agree with the posts about dogs taking their cues from scent.

    My rescue dog picked up on this shortly after coming to live with me. She will do everything in her power to wake me when my glucose levels drop. She hits me with a paw, then runs between the bedroom and the kitchen until I open the fridge and the bag of chocolate I keep for such emergencies.

    And of course, she receives a vet-approved treat for keeping her human safe.

    Posted by: mike | Jun 10, 2012 3:54:17 PM

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