25 September 2023
Dogs possess an extraordinary sense of smell, with approximately 600 million scent receptors in their noses, starkly contrasting to the mere 12 million found in humans. But can they detect more than food, toys, or other dogs? Recent research suggests that dogs have the ability to detect human emotions, including stress, depression, sadness, and grief.
Dogs can pick up on the chemical signals produced by various hormones and brain chemicals in our bodies. For example, they can sense fluctuations in serotonin levels, a brain chemical associated with depression, and detect cortisol, which is linked to stress and anxiety.
Studies conducted in the UK and Italy have shown that dogs can discern if a person is anxious or stressed, and their remarkable olfactory senses are the key to this ability. Stress alters the compounds found in human sweat and breath. In the UK study, when dogs were presented with samples from individuals before and after engaging in a stressful mental exercise, a striking 90 percent of the test dogs could accurately determine which samples came from the stressful period.
Knowing that dogs can detect our emotional states is impressive, but how do they react to our emotions? Dogs are known for their high level of empathy, earning them the label of “man’s best friend.” Various studies reveal that dogs pay immediate attention when they sense a change in their owner’s emotional state.
When they sense sadness or unhappiness, dogs often engage in emotional mirroring. For instance, your dog might lower its head and tuck its tail, behaving like he is sad, too. Some dogs might attempt to comfort you by licking your face, whining, or whimpering.
Moreover, they may choose to spend more time in your presence. Many dogs will approach you and sit nearby, waiting for acknowledgment. By doing so, they convey that they are there for you, not necessarily seeking to be petted but offering their presence as support. If these subtle cues go unnoticed, some dogs may try to distract you by initiating a game of fetch or another activity you both enjoy.
Dogs can also absorb and reflect the emotional energy of their owners. If you remain sad or stressed for an extended period, your dog may also become affected. Signs of canine depression include withdrawal, reduced appetite, and diminished interest in activities they typically enjoy. When this occurs, it’s your turn to support your loyal companion. Walking or visiting a friend with another dog can help both of you start feeling better.
As your emotional state improves, so does your dog’s. When they sense a reduction in the production of stress-related hormones, they feel reassured, and their behavior returns to normal. When your dog offers comfort through licks and cuddles during your moments of sadness, soak up these gestures, as they are your dog’s way of trying to make you feel better.
If you appreciate your dog’s emotional support, let them know by rewarding them with treats and giving them belly scratches. In this way, they will be more inclined to offer their comfort when you need it, yet another way in which we don’t deserve dogs.