Alison Laurie-Chalmers, Senior Consultant, Crown Vets
We now know that dogs’ brains process language in a similar way to humans, with the right side dealing with emotion and the left processing meaning. Dogs also seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to understanding human emotional needs.
When you are feeling upset, a dog can often act as a better confidant than any other human. They seem to listen better, respond appropriately to your emotions, and actually seem sincere and to genuinely care about your feelings.
Dogs are highly social animals capable of strong emotional connections. They have their own innate social structures and bonding rituals. The same emotional connections that dogs experienced in packs can transfer easily to any group setting, including cross-species situations. To your dog, you are ‘family’ and it’s as simple as that. Of course, there are many other fascinating things that your dog understands about you that you may not be aware of. Research shows that sometimes their intuitive abilities can be quite amazing.
When you feel sad, your dog will immediately pick up on this and will adjust his/her behaviour accordingly. They may become more subdued than usual, lose interest in toys and quietly observe you from a corner of the room. After a while they may come over and lie down at your feet or gently rest their head in your lap. Many dogs will lick you in an attempt to comfort you. A dog’s master and family are the centre of their entire world, so sensing your feelings of sadness will have some influence on them too.
Researchers found that a dog was more likely to approach someone who was crying than someone who was singing or talking. Furthermore, they found that dogs responded to someone crying with gentle, submissive behaviour. Dogs do intuitively seem to try to placate a person who is upset. What is more, it has been found that dogs will approach anyone who is upset the same way, regardless of whether that person is their owner or not. Scientists say that this study does not prove that dogs experience empathy, however it certainly goes a long way to supporting that claim. It clearly shows that dogs can identify and recognise sadness as an emotion that is different from other feelings.
We know that dogs working as assistance pets can be intuitive enough to know when their master needs help. For example, assistance dogs for autistic children give the parent and child a new found independence by helping the child remain calm and focused. A fully trained autism assistance dog can help change the child's behaviour by introducing safe routines and by interrupting repetitive behaviour, helping them cope better with their surroundings in and outside of their home. They provide a controlled, safer environment for the child allowing them to feel more secure and have transformed the lives of families affected by autism. Also, Therapet assistance dogs provide a comfort to many by visiting the sick and infirm in hospitals, hospices and care homes. Recently, universities worldwide are turning to therapy dogs to relieve their students' pre-exam nerves and first-term homesickness by providing them with a sympathetic canine friend.
So, as we learn more and more about dogs and their emotional intelligence, we learn just how much they can help us. Their kindness is always sincere and unconditional.
They are also great family pets and wonderful companions and so deserving of our good care and attention.