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To the question Do dogs really know when we're upset?” most dog owners will answer, “Uh, duh! Of course!” But now they've got science on their side.

Recent studies have proven what dog lovers have known all along: Dogs can, and do, pick up on very subtle clues in humans and express concern for our well-being.

One study explores a dog’s ability to recognize and respond to human distress, in this case, crying. Psychologists exposed 18 pet dogs, of varying ages and breeds, to four distinct human encounters, each lasting 20 seconds: Their owner and a stranger each pretended to cry, and their owner and a stranger each hummed “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” (The humming was designed to be a relatively novel behavior that would likely pique the dogs’ curiosity.) The owner and stranger briefly talking to one another preceded all four of these actions. In order to keep things as neutral as possible, the stranger ignored the dog until it was time to cue up the waterworks.

The dogs’ responses were divided into two categories: “Person-oriented” behavior included “look at,” “approach,” and “sniff,” while “passive,” “walking,” and “solitary play” were labeled “non-person oriented behavior.”

The experiment found that whether it was the owner or stranger who cried, the majority of the dogs exhibited what the researchers call “emotional contagion,” that is, behavior consistent with empathy, while the humming did not.

The study concluded: “If the dogs’ approaches during the crying condition were motivated by self-oriented comfort-seeking, they would be more likely to approach their usual source of comfort, their owner, rather than the stranger. No such preference was found. The dogs approached whoever was crying regardless of their identity. Thus they were responding to the person’s emotion, not their own needs, which is suggestive of empathic-like comfort-offering behavior.”

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