Dogs naturally want to reassure humans in distress, and not just their owners, scientists believe.

British researchers filmed 18 dogs of various breeds in their homes. Their owner, then a stranger started to talk, hum loudly, then pretend to cry.

All but three of the dogs stopped what they were doing and approached the distressed person submissively, then touched them in a reassuring way even when it was the stranger.

Lead author Jennifer Mayer said this is relatively sophisticated behaviour which puts dogs on a par with toddlers, who will try to comfort someone in distress by hugging them or giving them a toy.


"Regardless of whether it was their owner or the stranger, when an individual cried most of the dogs went up to them in a quiet, submissive way suggesting comfort-giving," Mayer said.

"They didn't go up to their owner when the stranger cried, which would have been seeking comfort for their own distress rather like infants who cry when another baby cries."

Younger infants, on the other hand, often start weeping when they see someone else cry, sharing their distress but not seeking to comfort them.

The youngest dog in the experiment was an eight-month-old labrador which was caught up chasing its tail until someone pretended to cry. It then rushed up and put its paws on her shoulder.

"They were responding to the person's emotion, not their own needs," Mayer said.

Researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London said there has been anecdotal evidence of the canine behaviour, but no scientific studies to prove it.

The study was published in the journal Animal Cognition.