Do Dogs Understand Crying (Know When You Cry)?

do dogs know when we cry

Dogs have been by the side of humans for millennia, so it stands to reason that they have evolved to pick up on our behavioral clues and body language. But how does this extend to crying and tears?

Research has recently been published that tried to find out if dogs understand human crying and what their reactions are when an owner is crying in front of them. It makes for interesting reading, and I’ve detailed it all in this guide.

Do dogs understand crying and human tears? Yes, dogs know when you are crying and, in some cases, will appear to comfort their human owners. Research found that dogs will try to get through a door to their owner when they cry tears and can become agitated and distressed.

Your dog’s connection to you runs deeper than you think. Our canine buddies are aware of our mood shifts, thanks to their superior senses.

When you’re jovial, they can sense and recognize that. And when you are down in the dumps, best believe your furry friend can sense that too. As any owner will testify, dogs do understand tears.

Below I will explain more about our emotionally sensitive canine companions. It includes what happens if you cry in front of your dog, whether they will try to comfort you, and details on the science to back it all up.

Do dogs know when you cry?

Dogs will know when you cry and recognize the change in emotion, there’s research (link to study paper) to show this. The 2017 study found that a dog’s heart rate is influenced by human emotional expressions such as crying and tears.

“It has been shown that dogs react with arousal to crying humans in true-to-life setting. Also it has been shown that dogs’ cortisol levels, a measure of distress, are increased upon hearing human infant crying.”

This backs up what almost every dog parent will tell you about their pet, and how their dog will act differently when they notice you aren’t in the best mood.

When you’re slumped on the bed crying your eyes out because of the hellish days you’ve been having at work lately, your dog will sense there’s something off about you.

Did You Know? Research has found that dogs know when their female owner is going through a menstrual cycle.

Further research also shows that dogs have a strong ability to recognize a shift in their owner’s emotions. In fact, your sad emotional expressions when crying can increase your dog’s heart rate!

Why does my dog get upset when I cry?

What dogs do when you cry can range from being distressed and confused themselves, to coming and comforting you when you shed tears (more on that further down the page).

The reason dogs can get upset when they see you cry is because they have a sympathetic nervous system that gets activated as soon as they notice our emotionally distress. This system is often responsible for reacting to stressors, and one way it does this is by triggering changes in heartbeat.

Since the sight of you crying can make your dog a little stressed, their sympathetic system will get instantly activated, hence the rapid heartbeat.

Our canine companions’ ability to know when we are sobbing has got to do with their amazing senses as other study from 2016 found.

“The study shows that dogs can integrate two different sources of sensory information into a perception of emotion in both humans and dogs. This means dogs must have a system of internal categorization of emotional states. Among animal groups, it’s a cognitive ability previously only evidenced in primates.”

Because of this ability to read human emotion, dogs can understand crying, but also:

  • Associate our facial expressions with certain emotions. Dogs are pros when it comes to linking lively facial expressions with positive emotions like happiness, and gloomy facial expressions with negative emotions like sadness and tears.
  • Notice changes in our attitude.
  • Memorize the sound of our voice (they have exceptional long-term memory).
  • Read our body language.
  • Detect any unusual changes in our breathing.

However, it’s worth noting that dogs don’t do dogs don’t necessarily understand human tears.

Whilst your dog will know you are crying, it’s not because of tears on your face. Instead it’s due to the odd crying sounds you’re making, the sad facial expressions, the irregular breathing, your different body posture, and your not-so-welcoming attitude.

When you’re crying, all these reactions are far from what your canine buddy is used to. That’s how they’ll get a hint that your world is crashing right before their eyes.

Also, your dog’s mood will change when they realize you are crying. That’s because the moods of our canine friends largely depend on the emotions we display. So, when you seem upset when crying, chances are they’ll be sad at that moment.

dog comforts when crying
One of our puppies knows when our son cries and tries to comfort him.

Here’s another interesting bit.

Dogs can’t fully empathize with us. What I mean is, while you’re crying and sobbing, your dog can’t deeply relate to your emotional pain. You’d think they can relate based on how they act as they watch you cry — but that’s not it.

According to research, emotional awareness level of an adult dog is similar to that of a toddler.

Look at it this way.

Suppose you are stress-crying. A two-year-old baby can’t feel or understand what you’re feeling, right? But an adult can.

In the same way, a dog has no emotional capacity to understand or feel your pain — they simply can’t put themselves in your shoes… so whilst a dog understands you are crying, they can’t understand why and don’t know what crying means.

Instead, dogs have what we call emotional contagion. Put simply, emotional contagion is the ability to respond to another person’s emotions even though you don’t know what they are feeling.

That’s why dogs are quick to take up the “ride or die comforter” role when you’re sobbing. More like letting you know, “I don’t know what’s up, but hey! I’m here for you!”

How do dogs comfort you when you cry?

Given that dogs know when you cry, it’s interesting to explore what dogs do when you cry. Dog owners will often report that their pets sense and recognize this emotion and the tears that come with it. Some even say their dog appeared to comfort them when it happened.

For many years the idea that dogs try to cheer their owners up when they cry was purely anecdotal. However, that position has now changed due to research published in 2018 by Sanford, Burt, and Meyers-Manor.

The three of them conducted a study where they put a dog owner in a room with their pet outside the door. They then got the human owner to pretend to cry to gauge the reaction in the dog.

What they found backed up the popular belief that dogs comfort you when you cry. They came to this conclusion after finding that many of the dogs would attempt to enter the door when their owner’s cried.

“Stress level measures also showed how dogs who were able to push through the door and ‘rescue’ their owners showed less stress. So, they were upset by the crying, but they could still act. The dogs who didn’t open the door were too upset and stressed to do anything — it wasn’t that they didn’t care.”

You can see some of the results from the study in the video below.

How to train your dog to comfort you when you cry

Dogs are used as emotional support, even coming into hospitals to cheer patients up. It makes sense, as they have learned for thousands of years how to respond to human behavior, and we now know that dogs can sense when we cry or feel depressed.

Because of this inherent trait, it’s possible to train a dog to comfort you when you cry.

We’ve done this in our home by using the word command “cuddles”. When we say this, our dog comforts us by coming up and nuzzling into neck and letting us put our arms around him.

To train him to comfort us when we cry, we would pretend to be upset, have some treats, and use the cuddle word when we hugged him. After a repeating this for 10 minutes over a few days, now when we say “cuddles” and pretend to cry, he comes over and puts his head into neck on command.

cuddles with dog
Our dogs will comfort us when we cry.

What do dogs do when they see you crying?

When you’re crying, your dog will display different reactions because they’re also upset and trying to understand what’s happening with you.

Here are some of the reactions to expect:

  • Trying to put their paw on your face, lap, or arm.
  • Staring at you (as if analyzing your facial expressions and body language).
  • Leaning their head towards your body.
  • Trying to lick your face.
  • Tucking their tail between their back legs.
  • Whining gently to get your attention.

Our precious canine companions love us unconditionally, no doubt! So, when you seem sad, they’ll attempt to cheer you up and make you return to your old, bubbly self.

It feels good to know that our dogs are always willing to be there for us during sad times, doesn’t it?

Here are some ways your dog will try to console you when you’re crying:

  • They’ll sit or lie next to you without doing anything apart from offering their physical presence.
  • If standing beside you, they’ll lean their head on you as though wanting to hug you. Most dogs do this because they expect their sobbing owner to wrap their arms around them in return.
  • They’ll act as the perfect tissue by licking your face and tears away
  • Distracting you by bringing you their favorite play toy. This is your dog’s way of signaling they’d rather try to revive your fun side than watch you sob helplessly.

It’s a good thing, though, because when your canine friend is right beside you, the physical contact triggers their brain to release oxytocin, or the “love hormone,” as others call it. And just like that, your crying episode may be the reason your dog falls in love with you for the hundredth time!

Other times, dogs may simply decide to leave you alone when you cry and head back to their favorite chilling spot because they want to give you some space.

If your furry friend does this, it’s not that they don’t care about you. Trust me, they still adore you a whole lot!

But they’ve likely assumed you don’t want them around, especially when they notice you’re acting non-responsive to their presence. In this case, they’ll back off and wait for you to make the first move once you feel better.

Related questions

Do dogs comfort you when you are crying?

Yes, they do. Dogs have their own cute way of giving you a shoulder to lean on. For instance, they will lie next to you, lean their head towards you as if hugging you, lick your face as though wiping away your tears or put their paw on your face or lap to show you they are there for you.

How does my dog know when I’m sad?

Dogs are good at reading their owners’ moods. Your dog will easily sense changes in your tone of voice, facial expressions, and attitude. That’s how they’re able to tell when you aren’t in your normal, happy state.

What do dogs do when you cry?

As discussed a little earlier, a dog will do several things, among them stare at you, lie close to you, whine, or even bring you a play toy (to distract you) if they notice you’re crying.

Do dogs know when you are upset with them?

Yes, dogs can tell if you are upset with them because they are able to read our facial expressions and sense changes in our tone of voice and attitude.

When you are upset, your facial expression will change, and so will how you speak to them and the behaviors you display.

If only dogs could talk and tell us what they really want to say… perhaps one day they will!

Conclusion

It’s easy to assume your dog knows you inside out, but do they really? Just as they know when you’re in high spirits, can they truly tell when you’re crying?

Well, I think I’ve now answered the question of whether dogs know we cry and understand we’re crying based on the significant research conducted.

Dogs have learned to read social cues from humans, including sensing our feelings, whether we’re sad, happy, or angry.

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Marc Aaron

I write about the things I've learned about owning a dog, the adventures we have, and any advice and tips I've picked up along the way.

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