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A sad woman hugging a small dog on a sofa

The essentials

  • Dogs have super sensory abilities — Dogs use their hyper sensitive noses as well as other heightened senses to gauge the feelings of other animals and people around them.
  • A dog’s brain is similar in intelligence to a human toddler — Like toddlers, dogs have the ability to sense the feelings of others around them even if they don’t fully understand the feeling.
  • Having a dog can be therapeutic to someone suffering from depression — Dogs often react to a sad person with extra cuddles and affection. For someone with mental health issues major depressive disorder, this can be very therapeutic.

Pups provide so much fun, love, and loyalty when you bring them into your family. Aside from their playful and often goofy dispositions and eagerness to please their humans, dogs also have high emotional intelligence and sensory superpowers. Our canine companions are able to sense a remarkable amount of things around them, often before dog owners even know what’s going on. While this emotional connection is seen most obviously on display in psychiatric service dogs, researchers have found that even untrained pets can demonstrate this type of empathy towards their humans.

Can dogs sense sadness? 

With all of the incredible sensory abilities dogs have to sense physical changes in humans, it’s really no wonder pups can also detect emotional changes. What’s really fascinating is that dogs use multiple types of senses to detect sadness or stress in their pet owners. Sight, but also hearing and even smell are all senses a pup uses to detect differences in emotions in other animals and people.

One recent study determined that dogs use a combination of sight and hearing to read facial expressions and emotional tone in the voice. Findings from another study demonstrated that dogs are even able to recognize emotional cues from photographs or images of people and other animals. Scientists have also found that dogs are able to determine and differentiate human emotions by smell.

How dogs show empathy when you’re sad

A pup’s first priority is often simply loving and protecting their human. Their priorities are no different when we’re sad, and dogs have strategies to try and comfort us when they sense we’re depressed.

Ignoring you – at first

It might seem strange, but some dogs may give their owners space if they sense any emotional upheaval. It’s not because your dog doesn’t care, and it actually might mean the opposite. Dogs often give other dogs space when they sense a member of their pack is in emotional distress. Your dog is also trying to give you a respectful amount of space to process your own emotions.

Dogs also might be avoiding an upset owner because they’re unsure what to do at times. They also might be worried they’re in trouble. Signs your dog may feel this way includes avoiding eye contact with you and/or has her tail between her legs. Give your pup some scritches and praise to ensure them they did nothing wrong.

Cuddling with you

When your dog senses you’re sad and need to be comforted, they will often approach you very gently. This is a dog’s way of approaching someone in distress in a non-threatening manner. Your pup is saying “hey, I’m here to help!” They may get very close to you or press up against your body. This is a sign of affection and trying to comfort their best friend.

Your dog may also show other signs of affection, like putting their head or paw on you, or cuddling in your lap. Dogs also might give you affectionate, gentle nibbles with their front teeth, or try to kiss you on the hand or face.

Distracting behaviors

When a person’s loved ones are sad, we often try and cheer them up by taking them out to eat or another fun activity. It’s a fascinating fact that our pups are no different! If your dog senses you’re depressed, they may run and get a favorite toy that the two of you often play with together. Or they even might exhibit goofy behavior, like getting the zoomies or rolling around on the floor. Your pup knows these things have made you laugh and be happy before, and they’re trying their best to make you happy again.

The best dog breeds to help with depression

When it comes to love, comfort and affection, basically any type of dog will fit the bill. And all dogs possess enhanced sensory abilities to determine peoples’ emotions. However, there are a few breeds that are especially skilled in being a therapy dog to a human with depression.

Cavalier King Charles spaniel

These little lap dogs have a reputation as fantastic therapy dogs. The Cavalier has a sweet, companionable nature and is very skilled at sensing human emotions.

Labrador retriever

The Labrador retriever is one of the most commonly used breeds of both therapy dogs and service dogs. Their high intelligence coupled with a very friendly and gentle demeanor make them excellent candidates for both jobs.


The poodle is an incredibly intelligent breed, and also very sweet and playful. Poodles are a more active breed and will need plenty of exercise. Long walks and playtime can be great therapeutic activities for a poodle and their human.

Golden retriever

Along with Labradors, goldens are perhaps the most recognizable breed of therapy dog. Visit a hospital or other care facility and you’ll often spot a happy golden retriever popping in to say hi to patients. Goldens have exceptionally calm and even-tempered natures that help reduce patient anxiety.

Yorkshire terrier

The spunky and confident Yorkie thrives on human attention and affection. These little pups have big personalities, and will often try to distract a sad human by playful or goofy behavior.


Pugs thrive in an environment where they are consistently around their humans. These little dogs are extremely affectionate and known for being excellent companions.

Other human emotions and changes dogs can sense

A pup’s powerful senses can pick up on so many things, both behavioral and physical. In addition to sensing when humans are sad, they can also detect when we are angry or fearful. Dogs also engage in mimicry, or mirroring our own emotions in order to relate to us. For example, when we smile or show a dog we’re happy, they will also open their mouth to mirror us with a happy face.

Dogs are also perceptive to physical changes in humans. Studies have shown dogs have been able to detect COVID-19 cells, hormonal changes that may indicate pregnancy, and even cancer .

Dog parents are well aware that our pups are very special. They give us love, affection, attention and plenty of laughs. The amazing superpowers that our dogs possess to sense our emotions is just one of many reasons why having a dog can help provide companionship and help with depression.

Frequently asked questions

Can a dog sense when a person is sad?

Dogs have incredible sensory abilities. They’re able to sense emotion on human facial expressions from just seeing a photograph of a person. Even their sense of smell is able to detect emotions around them.

What do dogs do when they sense you’re sad?

For those who may suffer from depression, an emotional support dog can offer a lot of comfort. When dogs sense their human best friends are sad, they make an effort to stick close to you and offer more cuddles and attention.

Can a dog sense when I’m crying?

Yes, dogs absolutely know when we’re crying, and they also know what emotions are happening behind the tears. A dog is able to distinguish between sad tears and crying out of happiness.

Does my dog know I’m sad when I’m crying?

Our pups are absolutely able to distinguish their humans’ emotions. Dogs can even tell from looking at a photograph what emotion a human was feeling by their facial expression.

How can dogs tell when their owners are upset or sad?

Dogs have the superpower to sense changes in a human’s emotion. Through their sense of smell, they can detect chemical changes in a person’s feelings. Dogs are also hyper aware of human body language, change in a human’s heart rate, and tone of voice.