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Can Dogs Sense Depression and Anxiety? What Science Tells Us

Can Dogs Sense Depression and Anxiety

Canines are often referred to as “man’s best friend” for their loyal companionship, playfulness, and affection, but can dogs sense depression and anxiety in humans too? This unique, empathetic connection explains the bond between humans and canines that has remained intact for millennia. 

In this article, we dive into the science behind this unique connection between humans and dogs and explore the benefits of emotional support dogs for mental health. Remember, our pups need some comfort too, such as a soft, calming bed for the days they’re not quite feeling like themselves. 

But it’s not just about dogs understanding humans; humans also interpret dog behavior. Countless studies and even books like Megan Daley’s Made for Each Other have proved the depth of the human-canine bond. When you pet, hug, or play with your dogs, there is an overflow of happy hormones giving you a sense of happiness and love.

Can Dogs Smell When You’re Sad?

Can Dogs Smell When You’re Sad?

Research has shown that dogs have a remarkable ability to sense and smell when their owners are experiencing depression or anxiety. This ability is based on their keen sense of smell(100 000 times stronger than ours) that can detect chemical changes in our sweat that tells them if we are stressed or sad. Dogs also have remarkable emotional intelligence.

But how exactly do dogs use these abilities to smell and detect mental health issues in their owners? Canines’ Impressive abilities to show empathy manifest in many different ways, such as this dog comforting their owner suffering from a panic attack.

Canine Olfactory Abilities That Allow Them To Know When We Are Depressed

Dogs have a sense of smell up to 100,000 times stronger than humans. This means they can detect minute changes in scent, including chemical changes in the human body. This includes Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) produced by humans experiencing psychological stress.

When people experience depression or anxiety, their bodies release certain hormones and chemicals that have a distinct scent. Dogs can detect these changes in their owners and respond accordingly. One study actually proved that dogs could distinguish between our baseline scents and stressed odors. 

For example, if a person is experiencing a panic attack, their body releases adrenaline and other stress hormones. These hormones have a distinct scent that dogs can pick up on. The dog may then respond by licking their owner’s face, pawing at them, or simply staying close by to provide comfort.

Dogs’ Emotional Intelligence

Dogs also have emotional intelligence, which allows them to pick up on human emotions and respond empathetically. It’s been proven that dogs can recognize human emotions in photos and react with appropriate behaviors, such as approaching someone who appears sad. Dogs can also modify their behavior based on their owner’s emotional state.

Research has shown that dogs looked longer at pictures where the facial expression matched the voice. This means that dogs can be said to have a sixth sense for understanding humans, which is their emotional intelligence. 

For example, if a person is feeling down, their dog may snuggle up next to them or bring them a toy to play with. If the person is feeling anxious, the dog may lay their head in their lap or provide a calming presence by simply being there.

Studies on Dogs’ Ability to Detect Mental Health Issues

Several studies have been conducted on the ability of dogs to detect mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. One study found that dogs could correctly identify the scent of a person with major depression 83% of the time, meaning dogs can literally smell your depression. 

Another study found that dogs could pick up on signs of anxiety and respond with comforting behaviors.

These studies suggest that dogs may be able to provide valuable support to people with mental health issues. In fact, some therapists have even incorporated dogs into their treatment plans, using them to provide emotional support and comfort to their patients.

Overall, the science behind dogs sensing depression and anxiety is fascinating and highlights the incredible bond between humans and their furry companions.

What Do Dogs Do When They Sense Depression and Anxiety? 

What Do Dogs Do When They Sense Depression and Anxiety? 

When dogs sense that their owners are experiencing depression or anxiety, they react in unique and empathetic ways, such as pawing at them, licking them, and alerting others. These empathetic behaviors are their attempt at coming through for their beloved hoomans.

Dogs act to comfort their sad humans; for instance, this video shows dog cuddling his sad owner:

Dogs have an innate ability to sense their owner’s emotions and react accordingly. Studies have shown that dogs are capable of recognizing a range of human emotions, including sadness, fear, and anxiety.

How Dogs Comfort You When You’re Sad

Comforting and Sympathizing Behaviors

Dogs often respond to human distress by offering comfort in the form of cuddling, nuzzling, or licking. This explains why your dog can’t stop licking your nose, nibbling your ear, or sleeping on you anytime you’re having a long day. 

These behaviors are indicative of a dog’s natural inclination to respond empathetically to human emotions. These are the dog equivalent of someone hugging you or putting their arm on your shoulder. 

Dogs have a calming effect on humans, and their presence alone can help reduce stress and anxiety levels.

For individuals experiencing depression or anxiety, having a dog around can provide a sense of comfort and security. Dogs offer unconditional love and support, which can be especially beneficial during times of emotional turmoil.

Alerting Others to Their Owner’s Distress

Dogs may also alert family members or caregivers to their owner’s distress. They may bark, whine, or engage in attention-seeking behaviors to draw attention to their owner’s emotional state. This behavior reflects not only a dog’s loyalty to their owner but also their desire to help in any way possible.

In some cases, dogs have been known to alert their owners to potential dangers, such as a fire or intruder. This level of vigilance and protection is just another example of the incredible bond between dogs and their owners.

Changes in Dogs’ Behavior Based on Human Emotions

When their owners are experiencing depression or anxiety, dogs may also modify their own behavior. They may become more subdued, less interested in play, or show signs of physical distress. These changes in behavior are a reflection of the strong emotional bond between dogs and their owners.

Dog owners must be aware of their pet’s behavior and emotional state. If a dog is exhibiting signs of distress or anxiety, it may be a reflection of their owner’s emotional state. In these cases, it is essential to seek professional help for both the owner and the dog.

Can My Dog Sense Mental Illness?

Dogs can sense mental illness due to the changes in the body’s chemicals when in different emotional states. Depression and anxiety are the most common mental illnesses canines can sense. 

Although dogs can’t exactly identify specific mental illnesses like bipolar, OCD, or borderline personality disorder, they can sense that something is wrong. For example, they can feel the changes during mania or depressive states in bipolar. Sources have shown that dogs can detect human stress and issues with more than 90% accuracy. 

How do Emotional Support Dogs Help with Depression and Anxiety?

How do Emotional Support Dogs Help with Depression and Anxiety?

Emotional support dogs provide companionship, comfort, and non-judgmental support to their owners. People with mental health issues often feel alone and disconnected from others, and emotional support dogs help reduce these feelings of isolation.

 Additionally, the act of caring for an emotional support dog can provide a sense of routine and structure, which can be helpful for people experiencing depression or anxiety.

Emotional support dogs are trained to provide comfort and companionship to people experiencing mental health issues. They are not the same as service dogs, trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities.

Studies have shown that spending time with a dog can increase levels of oxytocin, a hormone associated with happiness and well-being. This can be especially beneficial for people with depression and anxiety, who often have low oxytocin levels.

The Process of Getting an Emotional Support Dog

If you are interested in getting an emotional support dog, there are several steps you need to take. First, you need to obtain a letter from a qualified mental health professional stating that you would benefit from an emotional support dog. This letter should include information about your mental health condition and how an emotional support dog would help you.

Once you have your letter, you can apply for an emotional support dog through an organization or train your own dog to be an emotional support animal. If you decide to train your dog, it’s essential to ensure that they have the right temperament and training to be an emotional support animal. You can work with a professional dog trainer to help you with this process.

Is It Okay To Cry In Front of My Dog?

It is absolutely fine to cry in front of your dog and allow them to comfort you. This is very normal bonding behavior.

The important thing is to never take your negative emotions on your dog in the form of frustration or anger.

If you are depressed, you may not be able to keep up with as many fun activities with your dog. This is okay, but try to find ways to ensure your dog still has playtime and exercise, even if you need to ask someone to help you during this difficult time.

A study done by the University of Lincoln’s School of Psychology found that canines truly sense when you’re crying by combining what they hear and see. This means that no matter the reason or urgency to cry, your crying will likely impact your dog. So it’s impossible to hide being upset or sad from your dog; they’ll know.

By all means, express yourself emotionally in your dog’s presence because they want to be close to you. However, be aware that if you are struggling with emotions like anxiety, your dog can sense this too. This can transfer some stress to them. So it’s important to be proactive about your mental health for your own well-being and theirs.

What Are Some of the Benefits of the Human-Dog Bond?

The emotional connection between humans and dogs has many benefits. For one, dogs provide companionship and can help reduce loneliness and depression. They also provide a sense of security and can help reduce stress levels. In fact, many workplaces have started to allow dogs in the office to help improve employee morale and reduce stress levels.

Another benefit of the human-dog bond is increased physical activity. Dogs require daily exercise, which means that their owners need to take them on walks or play with them. This can lead to increased physical activity for the owner, which can help improve their overall health and well-being.

Also, dogs help in critical life-saving missions like rescuing from rubble during earthquakes or floods. They can also alert you on disasters before they happen, like fires and explosions, and are key in other essential activities like drug detection.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Dogs Sense Evil?

While there aren’t any definitive studies on a dog’s ability to sense evil, many owners report their dogs to distinguish between evil and good-intentioned people. Dogs are believed to sense “bad vibes” and evil more intensely than humans can, which is why they’ll bark more at specific people. It is possible that they are more aware of people who have antagonistic body language than we are. 

Does A Dog Know When You’re Upset With Them?

Your dog definitely knows when you’re mad at them, although people often confuse this with guilt about being naught. You’ll see this in their behavior, like turning their head or lowering it, avoiding your gaze, lip licking, and other stress or submission signals. They don’t do this because they know they did something bad, rather these are appeasement signals meant to stop you being angry.

Can Dogs Sense Death?

It is very possible that dogs can sense their own deaths and even their human’s. Dogs have the uncanny ability to sense diseases like cancer that would lead to fatality. They will try to hang around that person more and even show depressive behavior around them.

Final Thoughts

Dogs provide companionship, comfort, and non-judgmental support to their owners and can help reduce feelings of isolation and give a sense of purpose. This connection can be seen in their roles as support dogs in assisting people to cope with mental health issues.

 If you are interested in getting an emotional support dog, it’s essential to work with a qualified mental health professional and ensure that your dog has the right temperament and training to be an emotional support animal.


Tamsin De La Harpe


Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions.

Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

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