Will a Dog Comfort a Crying Stranger?

Study shows that dogs will respond to someone in tears, even if they are a stranger.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

A lovely study was just published by Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer of Goldsmiths College, London, who wanted to know if dogs show empathy for people. They wondered whether a dog would try to comfort someone who suddenly started to cry, and whether it made a difference if that person was their owner or a complete stranger.

Close up of a brown dog's face
Photo: Tatchaphol / Shutterstock.com

Eighteen medium-sized dogs took part. They were aged between 8 months and 12 years old, and were tested in their own homes, so that their behaviour wouldn’t be affected by strange surroundings. Interactions were video-taped so that the dogs’ behaviour could be rated later by several observers who did not know about the aims of the study.

The stranger and owner chatted in the living room, ignoring the dog completely. For short periods of time, the stranger pretended to cry, the owner pretended to cry, the stranger hummed ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ in a staccato way, or the owner hummed. The body language was the same for the crying and the humming, and in between each display the owner and stranger sat and chatted for two minutes.

The reason for the humming was to provide a contrast to the crying; it was a novel and potentially interesting behaviour to the dog.  The time spent chatting provided a baseline for the dog’s behaviour, and during this time the dogs did not approach the people (who were, after all, ignoring the dog). The dogs paid more attention to people during the humming than the talking, but they paid significantly more attention to people when they were crying.  

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If the crying had made the dogs feel sad, you would expect them to go to their owners to be comforted. However, that’s not what they did; the dogs directed their behaviour to the person who was crying, regardless of whether it was their owner or a complete stranger. Fifteen of the dogs actually approached the person who was crying, and almost all of them did so in a submissive way that could be seen as trying to comfort them. 

Does this mean that dogs show empathy? We can’t assume so on the basis of this study. It’s possible the dogs had already learnt, from prior experience, that if they approached someone who was crying they would be rewarded with affection or praise. It will be tricky to rule out that explanation, but it’s something that future studies can investigate. Humming was chosen as a novel behaviour that the dogs might be curious about, but it’s not an emotional display.

It would be really interesting to compare how dogs respond to positive emotional displays, such as laughter.

In any case, this study shows that dogs can distinguish between talking, humming and crying in humans. And a dog will go to a crying stranger, in a way that the stranger would likely interpret as an attempt to comfort them.

Does your dog comfort you if you are upset? What does your dog do?

P.S. Sign up now to get my free guide, Seven Secrets to a Happy Dog and learn how to have a better relationship with your pet. 

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:

Custance D, & Mayer J (2012). Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to distress in humans: an exploratory study. Animal cognition, 15 (5), 851-9 PMID: 22644113

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  1. I don't have a dog, but my cats would comfort me if I was crying. They would sit at my feet in front of my bed and look up at me. My older cat would jump up onto the bed and start kneading at my back if I was under the blankets. Even though she didn't stay very long, it meant a lot.

  2. What lovely cats you have! Thank you for sharing. I think cats make wonderful companions too.

  3. When I was younger, if I felt sick, my dog would know and he'd stick closer to me. Once when I had a bad flu, he wouldn't leave my bed side for 3 days. My mother ended up moving his food bowel to our room. It was a comfort to know that he was worried about me.

  4. My dog Jake was adopted at 11 months old. He is a German Coolie x, a busy dog, preferring to "play"than be stroked/cuddle. I have chronic pain from an old injury now and then. I have noticed at these times, Jake will "flea" me, almost like giving me a scratch/pat. As soon as I've realised this, I began distracting him and I stop patting/touching him if I am. I dont want him to "worry" for me, I can see he knows "something" is going on.
    We all wonder if dogs are capable of certain feelings, some say we try to humanise what we see in our dogs. But I found Jake's behaviour interesting at so many levels. Is he reading body language, my feelings, can he smell/scent my body chemical/hormone/other changes? Very interesting!

    1. I so believe dogs have feelings if dogs see (my little poodle mix does see me cry and comes to me looks right into my face to try to comfort me) emotions and react to comfort you he knows that feeling of crying is in need of comfort,right. Crying is sad majority of the time it is sad so dogs know to comfort. If crying from happiness it doesn't need comforting. If the dog goes to comfort you he knows that feeling of sadness.

  5. My current dog is still very young. If I am upset or crying, she will sometimes cuddle up next to me and just be still. Maybe to let me know she is "there for me"? Sometimes she will look at me as if she is trying to figure out what is going on or what she should do. I feel that she is working things out. However, my last Siberian husky was a very good therapy dog from the beginning and always amazed me even when we were still learning how to do "therapy" work. She so often just had an incredible feel for being where she was needed. One example stands out for me. While at a juvenile detention facility, she approached a young boy seated alone at a table with his head down. She pushed at him to pet her. He pushed her away. After a bit, I told her we needed to leave the boy alone. She wouldn't budge. Just as I was getting a bit annoyed with her, the boy put his arms around her, buried his face in her fur and started to cry. The look she gave me said it all - See? I told you so. He needs me. To us, he was a stranger. I don't remember ever seeing him before during our previous visits. But, somehow she knew he was upset. She did that so often that I eventually almost learned to trust HER instincts. (I was a slow learner!) Since my last dog was also my very first puppy and I had a whole lot to learn, I can't recall anything "special" that I did to train her to react this way. She just seemed to do it on her own.

  6. That's a beautiful story about your siberian husky. It must have meant such a lot to that boy, to have her there to comfort him. Thank you so much for sharing! Your current dog sounds very sweet too. It's wonderful that dogs make such great companions.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Well - I now have no doubt about my young dog. Although only 1 1/2 yrs old, she is definitely showing her "therapy" side - just like her "big" sister. Due to my father's increasing dementia, my current Siberian puppy does not spend a great deal of time with him. While I am at work or busy elsewhere, I have arranged for others to care for her away from home. This morning when my Dad woke up, he was very upset. I don't know whether he had a bad dream or what but he came into the kitchen (where I was reading the newspaper) in tears saying how alone he felt. (His closest, younger brother died last January 31st.) I sat him down and began talking to him. My puppy had been lying down, just chilling out. When Dad sat down in the chair, she came running over to him and put her head on his knee. She just stood there watching him. She had never done that before. It was a very precious moment.

      She stayed with him until he calmed down a bit and then laid down on the floor near him. When he finally settled into his normal morning routine she went outside. When she came back inside after spending a little time patrolling the backyard, Dad was watching tv. She jumped up on the couch next to him and stayed there for almost an hour. Another very unusual thing for her to do. Throughout the day, each time she came back inside, she went straight to my father and stayed with him for a bit. I don't know what was different about my father today that she felt she needed to be with him. He has been upset before but she seldom paid any attention to him. She always seemed more interested in going outside to chase critters or play with her ball. Something has changed in her. I have no idea what but it is definitely a wonderful and very priceless thing to see.

    2. First of all I'm sorry for your father's loss. It's lovely that your puppy was there to keep him company and provide some comfort to him. It sounds like she is very good at reading human emotions. Thank you for sharing the story.

  7. I was crying in my bed one night, and the family cat came in and out of nowhere started gently putting his paw on my face. I was surprised because I've never heard of anything like that. Another time at a petting zoo, a toddler fell down and started to cry, and I noticed a mama cow nudge him with her snout out of concern before the parent picked the kid up. :-)

  8. My 7 month english bull dog saw me crying and typically he's always bullying me since I'm a sissy but as soon as he seen that he comforted me the whole afternoon and didn't leave my side. He will usually try to bite my face if I get too close to him bit instead was letting me smoother his face. Too cute

  9. My "attack cat" will literally sit on top of me: back, belly, head, shoulders, feet anywhere he can be in contact with my body; if I am physically ill he follows me from room to room trying to stay in physical touch... When I am healthy he couldn't be bothered with showing up at feeding time let alone being in constant physical contact.

    1. He is trying to heal you with his purr - it's been shown with scientific study that purring makes broken bones heal faster, reduces pain and boosts the immune system. That's why cats are often never sick, rarely require pain relief (or at least do not display as much pain), and heal broken bones faster than dogs do (probably where the "9 lives" myth comes from too).

  10. I don't cry much but if I do my border collie comes over nudges my hands with his muzzle and leans his head on my lap with a wide eyed mournful expression and a tucked tail - almost as if he's crying with me.

    If someone else that we don't know but is sitting or standing near us cries he tries to do the same thing to them (even though normally he is totally indifferent to strangers and doesn't bother to greet anyone unless he knows them or I'm talking to them). Apparently when a stranger cries he feels the need to "comfort" them or at least see what's wrong.

    Similarly if someone falls over or is prone on the ground he runs over and nudges their face with his nose and licks them until they show that they are alive and awake (we call this the "lick of life"). He's very sensitive to normal human body posture - if I stand on all fours or lie down on the floor (not the sofa or bed which is a "normal" place to lie down) he runs over to see if I'm alright and nudges and sniffs my face until I reassure him that I'm fine (this makes it quite difficult to practice Yoga without the dog constantly wondering if I'm dying or having a seizure or something).

    He's very useful as I suffer from low blood pressure and I occasionally faint - I can rely on him to wake me up or go and get someone and bring them to me if I don't wake. None of this was trained by the way - I got him as a rescue and he started doing this the moment I brought him home. I'm inclined to think it's instinctive pack behaviour that any social domesticated animal will display.

    My cats used to comfort me by sitting on my lap or chest and purring loudly when I cried. Purring is very healing and makes you feel better very quickly - it's probably more effective than the sympathy of a dog (but both are nice to have).

  11. Even before the tears fall both my dogs are there, wagging their tails in panic and trying to cuddle me. They want to make sure I'm ok for definite. Also I've had a minor op this morning and am back home & they both know somethings not right. Although they both give hugs, Poppy the one who I believe likes to think she's more human is always the one who is snuggled as close as possible.
    It was the same after I returned home from a c-section, both very wary of my wound but trying to be as comforting as possible.
    Amber, the one who is less trying to be human (I hope that makes sense) has other abilities. The battery for our Carbon Monoxide monitor was running low and would extremely intermittently emit one quick sharp beep. It was approximately 2am when it started and she threw herself on me to wake me. I know the pitch of house/smoke/carbon monoxide alarms does upset her so try to have the most reliable alarms rather than ones that react to anything but I find it amazing she just had to wake me, even if she was selfish enough to want me to fix it, if it had been a true alarm she could have saved me, my daughter, herself and poppy.

  12. I did not know that dogs can do that. I am not a dog person anyway so it makes sense.


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