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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