When my mom is under the weather or feeling blue, I stay right by her side, as if holding a vigil until she recovers, resting my chin on her belly and looking up with eyes that say, “I’m here for you.”
Just the other day, she got off the phone and was sitting on the sofa, wiping tears from her eyes, trying to deal with her sadness. In a flash, I grabbed one of my favorite toys, a squeaky squirrel, and put it in her lap, hoping that the toy that makes me happy might also help her feel better.
Whether or not dogs (or even cats) fully sympathize with you, there’s no question that dogs and cats react to humans’ emotional distress. We may not know exactly how you feel, but we know you’re feeling something, and we comfort you because we can tell you feel rotten, even if we don’t entirely understand all of what’s happening.
Dogs are keen detectives when it comes to sensing changes in people. We notice when you’re sad, tense or sick. We can even detect serious illness, like cancer and diabetes. Turns out, dogs know more about human emotions and health than you ever suspected.
Canines have been by the side of humans for tens of thousands of years and have learned to read social cues. A good mood might mean extra snuggles or a game of fetch. A bad mood might mean scary noises and a day spent hiding under the bed. It makes sense that dogs would watch humans so closely, as changing moods give essential clues as to what is about to happen next.
Another way that dogs detect what’s wrong may be more direct: Sometimes they can literally smell what is wrong. A dog has about 200 million scent receptors in the schnoz, which pick up on tiny changes in the human body. Even though many details are not yet known, it’s clear that dogs have an uncanny ability to sniff out changes related to moods and illness, and that’s a skill that could be a real lifesaver.
Dogs are also experts at reading body language, and not just each other’s. Your posture, movements and even your subtle glances speak volumes and tell your canine companion a lot about what you’re thinking and feeling. Act happy and your dog will wag excitedly. Hang your head in sorrow and he’ll affectionately press his head in your lap.
So what is it about dogs that’s so comforting? For one thing, dogs are not human. Human relationships can be complicated. But with dogs, the relationship is less complicated. Dogs are loyal, loving and reassuring, without expecting anything in return.
Of course, every dog is different, and some are more comforting than others. If your dog isn’t the type to come running when you cry, don’t feel bad. Your relationship with your dog is complex and unique. If you take care of your dog, he’ll take care of you in his way. After all, one of the greatest comforts a dog (or even a cat!) can provide is companionship.