Dr. Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer, both of the Department of Psychology at the University of London, developed a procedure to examine whether domestic dogs could identify and respond to emotional states in humans.
Eighteen pet dogs -- a range of ages and breeds -- were exposed to four separate 20-second experimental conditions in which either the dog's owner or an unfamiliar person pretended to cry, hummed in an odd manner, or carried out a casual conversation.
More dogs looked at, approached and touched the humans as they were crying as opposed to humming, and no dogs responded to those talking, Custance said.
The study, published in the journal Animal Cognition, found a majority of dogs in the study responded to the crying person in a submissive manner consistent with empathic concern and comfort-offering.
"If the dogs' approaches during the crying condition were motivated by self-oriented comfort-seeking, they would be more likely to approach their usual source of comfort, their owner, rather than the stranger," Mayer said in a statement. "No such preference was found. The dogs approached whoever was crying regardless of their identity. Thus they were responding to the person's emotion, not their own needs, which is suggestive of empathic-like comfort-offering behavior."