I often hear dog owners say dogs would walk near you and be inactive if you are sad, is that true?
There's a lot of dog behaviour that is "well-known" to owners, but not actually rigorously studied. For instance, it was only last year that dogs were shown to behave with envy. Since we own a dog and have been taking care of someone else's for the last week, this has been abundantly clear.
Certainly, in my experience, our dog will sense our moods, snuggling up if one of us is feeling particularly tired/stressed/sad, trying to make us play when we are active. She is less good at it when she is particularly over-excited. It has been shown that dogs do react in a neurologically similar way to humans when they hear emotional sounds and tones of human voices.. In another study, dogs demonstrated the ability to differentiate between happy/excited and disgusted facial expressions to determine which box a demonstrator looked in contained the best food.
This demonstrates dogs may have the ability to distinguish our emotions. Whether or not they react sympathetically to them is another matter, which is probably harder to study empirically. Many owners certainly claim they do, myself included, but owners are particularly bad for treating their dogs as humans, and seeing what they want to see. (There are studies demonstrating that too, maybe I'll add some links later).
I think it is also a good time to mention the beneficial effects dogs can have on people with depression and emotional issues, or even when you've just had a bad day at work. For instance webmd talks about how pets may help with depression, and children going through emotional issues at home feel safe talking to a pet.
Published in the last couple of days: New Study Shows Dogs Can Recognize Dog, Human Emotions (news article contains link to scientific journal).
Like human beings, healthy cats and dogs are generally concerned with their pack mates' (your) emotional state.
If you want to experiment with this, try the following:
Lie on the floor and whimper like a hurt or otherwise very upset dog. You may have to experiment a bit with what you do, but your dog should come investigate. Really, they should investigate any substantially abnormal behavior. (This and curiosity are why, when you are fixing something or doing something new, they always seem to be in the way.)
If you are a talented actor, you could thrash around on the floor like you are having a seizure or breathe like your airway is partially blocked with choking sounds. Put on the right act and you will see some alarmed and concerned pets.
Cats are trickier, because when hurt they will sometimes cry but they will often stay still and keep quiet. Curl up in a ball in a dark place like the closet and maybe sob a bit. They cat should come over and sniff you a bit at least, if not start rubbing up against you, head butting you or climbing on you.
Both cats and dogs have been known to bite unresponsive owners (even chew their faces off to wake them from a drug overdose).
If you can duplicate the utterly pathetic high pitched meow of a sad lost hungry kitten, cats will often come running to investigate.
They certainly have to acquire some sense of when we do and do not welcome attention, and they're more aware of changes in our scent than we are ... which makes determining whether they can read our mood cues innately rather difficult. I'm not sure how one would devise a proper double-blind study for this.
It's definitely known that dogs can detect scents associated with some diseases. It isn't known whether that means anything to them beyond "smells different now; last time smelled this way lay in bed for three days and was warm."
I'm not sure the question is worth asking, though, just as I don't ask whether my cats love me or just find me a good source of cuddles and treats and entertainment. They clearly like me, and that's all I ask. If they keep me company when I need company, I don't see any point in questioning their motives.
Sure, I'm curious about the fuzzy little thoughts in that fuzzy little head, but I don't really need to know much more than I do. I take it on faith that the difference between their thoughts and ours is in degree and emphasis and cognative tools available, rather than in kind. And if my mirror neurons are fooling me into believing I understand them better than I really do, that's ok too.
Actually, dogs have a remarkable ability to read our emotions. They can easily figure out the difference between our happy and sad emotions. It’s like this for a Dog or cat, both lived with us as a pet. Study thoroughly finds that dogs have the power to sense humans emotions; they have a little patch of their brain devoted to deciphering emotions in human and dog voices; they listen better to you and in fact respond appropriately to our emotions.
Sometimes a question strikes in everyone’s mind: do dogs have emotions or don’t they?. Being a dog owner, anyone can notice that a dog has tendencies to sense you and your emotions, when you get back home. I personally notice that when I’m happy my dog will come to play with me by doing attacks over me and sitting in my lap and if I feel low my dog can often act as a better confidant than anyone else. Moreover, cats can read human facial expressions. It's all about cat’s brain, which is enough for them to show and understand emotions.