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Do dogs know when you cry for them?

Dogs have an uncanny ability to detect human emotions. Many dog owners have had the experience of their dog comforting them when they are sad or anxious. This has led to the common belief that dogs can sense human emotions, especially when we cry. But is this really true? Can dogs actually recognize human emotions and specifically respond to crying?

The Evidence That Dogs Detect Human Emotions

There is some scientific evidence to suggest dogs can perceive human emotional states. Studies have shown that dogs can distinguish between happy and angry human faces and recognize facial expressions that correspond to specific emotional states. Dogs also seem able to detect human emotions through body language and changes in vocalizations.

Researchers have identified some of the methods dogs may use to sense human emotions:

  • Dogs can detect pheromones and hormones released when humans experience emotions. For example, when humans cry tears release chemicals that dogs may be able to smell.
  • Subtle facial muscle movements may provide visual cues to dogs about human emotional states.
  • Changes in body posture, such as slumped shoulders during sadness, can signal emotion.
  • Dogs are very sensitive to pitch, tone and volume of human voices and can hear sounds at higher frequencies than humans. Alterations in human vocalizations may indicate different emotional states.
  • Dogs can pick up on visual cues of emotion from human faces. Making eye contact with a crying human may alert dogs to sadness or distress.

This evidence indicates dogs can sense human emotions through chemical, visual and auditory signals. But merely recognizing emotional states is different than feeling empathy and responding appropriately. The ability to emotionally connect with humans suggests an even higher level of emotional intelligence in dogs.

Do Dogs Truly Feel Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and respond to the emotions of others. Some research provides clues that dogs may actually feel empathy for humans:

  • A study allowed dogs to view their owners receiving an electric shock. The dogs exhibited signs of stress and anxiety in response, suggesting concern for their owner’s discomfort.
  • Dogs have been observed comforting their owners when crying, such as licking away tears, nuzzling for affection or laying their head in their owner’s lap.
  • When human family members argue, dogs often exhibit signs of distress, potentially empathizing with the humans’ negative emotions.
  • Some dogs have protectively intervened when a family member is under threat or being attacked, implying an understanding of the human’s fear or pain.
  • There are many anecdotes of dogs alerting others to their owner’s distress, for example barking to draw attention when an owner has a medical emergency.

Skeptics argue these behaviors could be the product of conditioning rather than true empathy. But most dog experts believe dogs do empathize with human emotions even if the exact mechanisms are not fully understood.

The Bond Between Humans and Dogs

Research indicates the human-canine bond may have evolved to be particularly strong due to dogs’ emotional receptiveness to humans. Our shared history may have shaped this relationship.

  • Humans have kept dogs as companions for thousands of years. Over time, humans likely selectively bred dogs to be more responsive to human contact, emotions and commands.
  • Through domestication, dogs and humans have somewhat integrated social structures. Both communicate within their own species through eye contact, body language and vocalizations.
  • Dogs show attachment to their human caregivers in ways similar to human infant attachment. The human caregiver provides a sense of safety and security for the dog.
  • Interaction with humans raises levels of oxytocin, the “love hormone,” in both dogs and their owners. This hormonal bonding reinforces the human-canine relationship.
  • Dog owners perceive personality traits in their pets and feel that their dogs provide social and emotional support.

This evidence points to a mutual affection and attachment between humans and dogs that could explain why dogs seem highly responsive to human emotional states like crying.

How Dogs Respond to Crying

Many dog owners report that their pets seem to respond immediately when they cry. Are these just anecdotes or is there proof that dogs react to human tears?

Some specific dog behaviors in response to human crying include:

Behavior Description
Making physical contact Licking the tears away, nuzzling the crying person, placing head in lap
Providing comfort items Fetching toys or blankets for the crying person
Barking or vocalizing Howling, whining or making concerned noises
Pacing or circling Rapidly moving around the crying person
Seeking attention Staring at the person, poking with nose, pawing for touch

Some key research on dogs responding to crying includes:

  • A 2020 study recorded over 200 dogs’ reactions to a crying stranger vs humming stranger. Over 75% of dogs approached the crying person, suggesting an intrinsic caregiving response.
  • Brain scan studies show activation of dogs’ emotion processing regions when exposed to human crying, indicating recognition of a distress cue.
  • Tear duct chemicals in emotional crying may provide a stronger signal prompting caregiving behavior from dogs.
  • A familiar person’s tears generate a stronger reaction from dogs than a stranger’s, implying dogs connect crying with distress in attached humans.

While more research is still needed, these studies imply dogs have an innate response to attend to and console crying humans.

Why Do Dogs Respond to Crying?

Dog experts theorize several explanations for why dogs are alerted by human crying and attempt to provide comfort:

  • Instinct – Like their wolf ancestors, domestic dogs retain pack animal instincts to aid distressed pack members.
  • Bonding – The caregiver relationship between dogs and humans motivates dogs to console their attached human if crying signals distress.
  • Training – Dogs learn to associate cues like crying with gaining rewards by comforting their owner.
  • Alarm – Unfamiliar sounds like crying may alert a dog and stimulate them to action, similar to hearing a doorbell ring.
  • Empathy – Dogs may relate to emotions they perceive in humans, enabling an empathetic caregiving response when humans cry.

These explanations aren’t mutually exclusive. Dog behavior is likely determined by a combination of instinctive responses, environmental cues, and capacity for empathy.

How to Interpret Your Dog’s Reaction to Crying

If your dog seems to react when you cry, here are tips for understanding their behavior:

  • Consider your dog’s typical nurturing behavior – does your dog commonly display caregiving responses?
  • Note contexts when your dog reacts – do they only respond to the sound of familiar people crying?
  • Observe body language – approaching with tail wagging likely conveys concern vs backing away with ears down which may signal fear.
  • Does your dog attempt physical connection and comfort vs just vocalizing?
  • Be aware crying can also stress dogs. Monitor if reactions seem anxious rather than helpful.
  • Think about your conditioning. Has rewarding your dog for comforting crying reinforced the caregiving behavior?

Understanding your individual dog’s behavior will provide insight into whether your pet is displaying empathy or has learned to associate cries with rewards through training. But in either case, your dog can offer comfort during emotional times.

Using Your Dog’s Reaction Compassionately

While dogs may not fully understand the complexities of human emotion, their caring response when we cry can still be a source of comfort and healing. Some compassionate ways to interact with your dog when you’re emotional include:

  • Show appreciation if your dog approaches – thank them, give treats or extra playtime.
  • Don’t force interaction if your dog seems stressed.
  • Provide reassurance if your dog is alarmed – pet them and speak calmly.
  • Consider engaging your dog purposefully – crying into their fur releases oxytocin.
  • Don’t expect your dog to “fix” your emotions. Seek help from other supportive humans too.
  • Value your dog for their presence rather than their problem-solving ability.

While we may never know if dogs truly feel empathy, validating your dog’s attentiveness to your feelings can nourish the reciprocal care at the heart of your bond.


The close relationship between humans and dogs seems to enable canine companions to detect our emotional states, including recognizing when we cry. Dogs demonstrate observable behavior changes in response to human tears and other crying signals. Whether due to instinct, conditioning or empathy, dogs often appear motivated to provide comfort when their human cries.

Understanding your own dog’s reactions can help you interpret if they are displaying empathy or well-trained behavioral responses. But regardless of the impetus, your dog’s presence and concern during emotional times can have real therapeutic benefits as you navigate life’s challenges together.