Dogs provide immense emotional support in hard times. Having a dog around can help you deal with grief, and sometimes it seems as though the dog truly understands the sense of loss you're feeling. However, it's important to avoid personification when it comes to dogs -- dogs don't possess the full spectrum of human emotions. Instead, they have a smaller range of less mature emotions, similar in many ways to a human toddler.
For the most part, dogs feel simple, direct emotions. A dog can be sad, for example, or scared, but they do not possess the cognitive faculties required to feel socially stimulated emotions like embarrassment or envy. Dogs are adept at reading their masters, however, and will display certain behaviors to create specific results that may or may not be related to emotion. For instance, a dog that looks sad may just know that putting his ears back and giving his owner “puppy dog eyes” is an easy way to score a quick pet.
Humans often project their emotions onto their pets, seeing what they want to see rather than truly attempting to understand the behavior on display. When you are overcome with sadness and your dog comes over to you, it's comforting to think he's trying to make you feel better. Unfortunately, while research has shown that dogs do react to the emotional states of their owners, it's unclear whether they actively seek to comfort or calm them in states of high emotion. There's no definitive proof that dogs understand human emotion, or that they do not.
One interesting facet of dog emotions is the fact that they seem to grieve themselves. Dogs have been known to lie at their owners' caskets or stay by their sides for days after death. While it's not possible for a dog to understand the grief his owner is experiencing, he's still capable of experiencing grief in his own way when faced with a loss. Dogs perhaps do not grasp death in the way that humans do, but will show signs of depression and may look around the home for his lost human. This can also occur when a dog is separated from a longtime animal companion.
Animal behavior experts have long been curious about the depth of dog emotions and the way in which those feelings interact with the emotions of humans. In one study, dogs faced with crying or humming humans would almost always approach the crying individual. In another, dogs with separation anxiety were shown to be more pessimistic than those without. The science of dog emotions is one that will continue to grow as more research is conducted. Dogs do react to the emotional state of their owners; it's just not known exactly how much of this is related to sympathetic understanding rather than behavioral cues.
- Janie Airey/Lifesize/Getty Images