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Can dogs tell when you are in pain?

We’ve all heard the stories of dogs that curled up by their people’s side when they returned from a hospital stay. Most of us who include dogs in our families have had some type of experience of our pets being extra attentive when we weren’t feeling good physically or emotionally. Even when we try to hide our discomfort, it seems they know. Can dogs tell when you are in pain? Let’s explore this further.

Can dogs tell when you are in pain?

Dogs can sense when you are in pain. They may not understand the exact concept of what you are feeling, but they can tell that something is not as it should be. This is done in a number of ways. First and foremost, a dog uses its extremely honed sense of smell. With its nose, the dog knows what you smell like when you are in a normal state of health. They smell everything down to a chemical level. 

When you are in pain, your cortisol level increases. Your dog will notice this change and know that something is off. It will then take cues from your body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice to help decipher what is going on. If you have a physical injury that involves bleeding or the use of some medication, this adds to their information. 

Dogs may not know what to do about your pain, but they will often be extra attentive. If they know where the pain is coming from, they may lay their head or a paw on the area as a way to try and comfort you, and protect the area.

Dogs find any way they can to help people they love to produce the chemicals they associate with normal good feelings. Once the levels of chemicals that indicate pain are reduced, your dog will be more willing to leave your side.

Can dogs sense when something is wrong?

Just as a dog can sense that a person is in pain, they can also sense when there is something else that is wrong. With their keen sense of smell and ability to detect changes on a chemical level, many dogs have been given tasks in the medical field. These dogs can be trained to detect illnesses such as lung cancer, diabetes, and more simply by smelling a person’s breath or urine.

Some support dogs are trained to notify their person when there is an impending seizure or their sugar levels are dangerously high or low. This sensing is also possible for emotional issues such as a panic attack or nightmares suffered by people with PTSD.

All of these things produce a change in the body that alerts the animal. Some dogs can also tell when something is wrong before you see any signs of a problem.

If your dog starts to spend a lot of time placing its nose or paw in an area that is not normal for it, it is a good time to have a medical doctor check you out. Dogs have indicated the presence of a tumor before any signs have been noted that would indicate a need for medical treatment.

This does not have to be a dog that is specifically trained to detect an illness, but it can be any dog that has regular access to its humans. 

Can dogs tell when you are sad?

Dogs can also tell when your emotions are not what they normally are. Among the chemicals they can smell are oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, which are known as feel-good chemicals. What’s more, your dog will try to do the things it believes will increase the level of these chemicals. 

Studies have shown that dogs do worry, which also indicates they have empathy.  A dog that is worried has drastic changes in its sleeping behavior and it will go through barriers that would normally stop it if it feels there is a need for someone to be rescued. This empathy isn’t limited to a dog’s caretaker.

When put into a room with two or more people, one being the owner, you can see this empathy. One study asked a person present to hum, which was a novel experience for the dogs, and one person was asked to pretend to cry. In the majority of cases, the dog would approach the person who was crying.

This indicates the dog’s willingness to help, rather than seek safety because you would expect a dog that was confused by a behavior to go to the person it felt most safe with. Yet, dogs invariably went to the person they felt needed assistance.

This empathy is why many doctor’s offices, including dentists and eye doctors, are now including support dogs on their staff to help ease the fears of patients.

Can dogs sense when you are sick?

By now we have determined that dogs can indeed sense when you are sick. They don’t only smell the difference, but they watch how you behave. Dogs can hear the change of tone in your voice. They know if you are being less active or moving slower than normal.

Because they have the tendency to worry about those they love, they will protect you and also try to make you feel better. Different dogs will react in different ways, depending on their personalities.

Most dogs will cuddle with you, making sure they are touching you in some way at all times. You won’t be able to go from one room to another without them being right there. This is often much more consistent than even the most clingy companion.

Other dogs feel you need to be left alone unless you call them. These dogs can be found, however, somewhere within view. They will keep an eye on your every movement and not leave except to eat or use the bathroom. The third type of dog is the one we most often hear about, even though it is definitely not the most frequent behavior. 

The third type of dog will try to distract you from the bad feelings. This dog will bring you a toy to play with, will try to get you to play, or will in some other way try to get your attention and help you produce the feel-good chemicals it associates with your normal feelings.

One family used to joke because every time someone was sick or sad, their dog would roll over and insist on a belly rub. They joked that he must be thinking “It makes me feel good so it must make them feel good!”.

In actuality, that is exactly why the dog did it. He knew that rubbing his belly usually increased the feel-good chemicals in his humans so he did the thing he knew had been helpful in the past.