Most of us look for comfort when we’re upset. That can either come in the form of human-to-human contact – the kind we’d expect from friends, family, and even strangers – and it can come from our pets. Dogs are, after all, man’s best friend. There’s no species more loyal or more eager to love us than dogs.
But we should be careful about projecting our emotional perceptions onto our pets. When a dog walks away from us when we’re crying, it is not the same as when a person does it. Dogs aren’t rejecting us, and you shouldn’t take it personally. Psychology Today writes that we should think of the average dog as having the mind of a 2–3-year-old toddler. Framing it like that can be helpful. You wouldn’t get upset if a toddler didn’t know how to comfort you, would you?
Why does my dog leave when I start crying?
But our pets are receptive to our mood. Several studies show that dogs recognise both positive and negative emotions in humans without being trained to do so. It’s something they do naturally. As we understand more about domestic dogs and how they interact with us and their environment, it becomes more apparent that they’re incredibly receptive to the humans they interact with.
One study published in the Learning and Behaviour journal selected thirty-four dogs and their owners for an experiment. A clear plastic door separated the humans and the dogs so that one was still visible to the other. The door was secured with magnets and wasn’t locked. On occasion, the owners hummed out loud the tune of twinkle twinkle little star. On other occasions, each owner pretended to cry.
It became clear that dogs recognised the difference between the tune and the sound of their owner’s emotional distress. The dogs that pushed open the door to get to their owner did so faster when they perceived their owner was upset. The dogs appeared to recognise the different emotional states.
But that’s not relevant to this post.
What is relevant is why dogs might choose not to comfort their owner. The dogs that didn’t open the door during the experiment didn’t do so because they were cold or aloof to their owners suffering. It was either because they were unsure of how to respond or because they became anxious. Whilst the research supports the idea that a dog can recognise the difference between happiness and sadness, it may not always be clear what is expected of them at that moment.
This is clearer when we use an earlier example. Imagine a toddler in this situation. A two-year-old might place a hand on the knee of someone crying or offer a toy or hug. Another child might feel uncertain or anxious. They may step away or go to another person. It doesn’t mean that the child doesn’t love that adult. It just means their emotional response hasn’t developed sufficiently enough to give an appropriate response.
Dogs may also feel overwhelmed or intimidated by a big show of emotion. Their natural response will be to step away. Dogs can be highly receptive to our emotional states, but we mustn’t confuse some of those responses with rejection.