No one likes the idea of living with a sad dog. We want to give our pups the best life possible, and believe that they’re happy with us! But we can’t always avoid sadness in our own lives, and likewise we might find ourselves wondering if dogs can feel sadness too.
Attributing human emotions to dogs is not a straightforward business. But we can explain what it means when your dog appears down in the dumps, how to tell when they’re really sad, and how to lift them out of their funk.
Sadness In Dogs
You can use these links to navigate this article:
- Do dogs get sad?
- Why does my dog look sad?
- Why is my dog sad?
- Can dogs sense sadness?
- How to cheer up a sad dog
Do Dogs Get Sad?
We humans each have to deal with our share of sadness, and we know exactly what a sad expression from another person looks like.
And sometimes dogs also have experiences which would make us sad. Such as leaving a home they’ve always loved, giving up a favorite hobby because they’re physically no longer up to it, or losing a loved one. We can’t talk to them about their feelings during these events, so we don’t know if sorrow feels the same for them as it does for us. But many dogs’ behavior changes in a way which certainly suggests they feel something like sadness. And naturally we want to alleviate those feelings. But first we need to understand what made them sad in the first place.
Why Does My Dog Look Sad?
Are you sure you know what your dog looks like when they’re sad? We rely heavily on facial expressions to recognize sadness in other humans. Unhappy people have downcast faces, they frown, and they might cry. Sometimes dogs have faces which look sad too. Does this mean they feel sad on the inside as well? Not necessarily!
Some dogs just look sad
Some dogs have faces which just look sad, no matter how they actually feel. This seems especially true of dogs with very wrinkly faces, such as Pugs and Bulldogs. Perhaps their wrinkles remind us of a human frown. In contrast, the Samoyed’s upturned mouth makes them look permanently smiley, even when they’re unhappy.
And some dogs might be having you on!
Domestic dogs have two small muscles which work to raise their inner eyebrows: the levator anguli oculi medialis muscle and the retractor anguli oculi lateralis muscle (try saying those names five times quickly!). When dogs use them, their inner eyebrows prick up, their eyes look bigger, and they take on the classic “sad dog” look.
Wolves don’t have these muscles, which means they must have evolved with domestication. It is highly unlikely this happened by coincidence. So it’s thought that humans actually intentionally or unintentionally favored dogs who could raise their inner eyebrows, precisely because it’s an expression which resonates so strongly with us.
Even today, we’re more likely to give attention to our Labs when they give us those sad puppy dog eyes. Which researchers have found reinforces the behavior and makes our dogs more likely to do it when we’re looking at them! It’s important to appreciate that this isn’t part of a sneaky guilt trip though. They don’t know how we interpret that expression – just that we give them more attention when they use it.
So we can’t rely on facial expressions to recognize a sad dog
But if we can’t rely on a sad dog face as a window on their emotions, how can we tell when they feel sad?
What Does A Sad Dog Look Like?
A sad dog may:
- be disinterested and unresponsive to things going on around them
- let their tail hang limply between their legs
- keep their gaze lowered and not look for eye contact
- make slow, subdued movements
- lose their appetite
- lose interest in toy or games
- shed more than usual
- and sleep more.
Why Is My Dog Sad?
The things which can make our dogs unhappy include:
Lots of the signs of an unhappy dog can be symptoms of a physical illness too. For example, a dog suffering severe joint pain from hip dysplasia or arthritis might go off their food and lose interest in exercise. And of course, any sort of illness can make them sad about feeling unwell. So if your dog is out of sorts, arrange a consultation with your vet to rule out underlying medical causes.
Dogs are a social species. Even their wild ancestors relied on strength in numbers for survival, and domestic dogs are capable of forming close emotional bonds with humans as well as other dogs. When dogs lose a person or pet they were closely bonded to, they go through a process like grief, which can include elements of sadness, depression, increased anxiety and stress.
Your dog can also feel sad if they suddenly have to start spending more time alone. For example if you get a new job, your shifts change, or if a kid who always used to play with them gets old enough to move out.
Dogs are happiest and most confident when they know exactly what to expect from their environment and their routine. Moving house can be very unsettling for dogs. And finding themselves immersed in an unfamiliar territory can make them lose their spark for a bit.
Arrival of a new pet or family member
Babies, puppies and kittens all throw previously well-established routines out of the window. Even a new partner or housemate moving in can change the dynamic between a dog and their family. These changes in routine, or the amount of attention they get, can make a dog feel frustrated, or just sad.
Lack of physical or mental stimulation
It’s not uncommon to read about dogs resorting to destructive behaviors like chewing or digging as an outlet for unspent energy. But all dogs are different, and some react with sadness. This might be the case if they can’t exercise because they’re recovering from surgery for example.
Lack of purpose
So many of our modern dog breeds, including Labradors, were originally bred to work. They used to spend long days working in close cooperation with a human handler to perform a job. And each new generation was bred from the individuals who were best at doing that job.
Today we’ve welcomed Labs and many other working breeds into our home as companions alone. But their working ability is still hardwired into their DNA. And a lack of purpose can leave them feeling lost, and well, a little bit sad.
Finally, some dogs get sad because they can tell that their owner or another dog that they live with is sad. And we’re going to look at that a bit more closely before we move on to ways of cheering up your sad dog!
Can Dogs Sense Sadness?
Lots of pet parents say their dog can tell when they’re upset. And it’s not just wishful thinking. What’s more, your sadness can make your dog upset too! There is lots of evidence that dogs mimic the body language of other dogs, which is regarded as the first building blocks of empathy. And there have been studies in the past where participating dogs were recorded sniffing, nuzzling and licking a stranger who was pretending to cry. But it wasn’t clear at first if that response was an expression of empathic concern, or having learned in the past that they will be rewarded for “soothing” people in distress.
However a 2014 study in New Zealand revealed that dogs experience a surge of cortisol – the fight or flight hormone – and display a unique combination of alert and submissive behaviors when they’re exposed to a human baby crying. The researchers attributed this combination of hormonal and behavioral responses to rudimentary cross-species empathy.
And even more recent research has indicated that female dogs are more empathetic than males, and that dog’s empathy for their owner increases with duration of ownership. And also that dogs don’t just pick up on brief episodes of extreme stress – they also experience long term stress if we are stressed out for a long time. All of which supports the idea that dogs can not only sense when we are sad, but they share in our sadness with us. Including the subtle nuances, like whether it passes quite quickly or stays with us for a long time.
How To Cheer Up A Sad Dog
But now let’s focus on how to cheer up your downhearted canine pal. Here are 8 ways to restore them back to their happy selves:
1. Get them out and about
Fresh air and exercise is great for all of us, but it’s especially good for our dogs. Unless their vet says otherwise, dogs need an opportunity for exercise every day. Walking the same route every time can sap our enthusiasm for doing this, so keep a list of places you can go and refer back to it if you get stuck in a rut.
If your dog is usually very active but they can’t exercise at the moment, it’s very likely the reason they’re feeling sad. In this case, look into dog strollers, or drive them somewhere and let them take in the view with the windows down when you get there.
2. Get creative with toys
Toys and games can check the physical stimulation box and mental stimulation box all in one go. If your dog can out-walk you too easily, or one of you is restricted to limited exercise, these enrichment activities will mean he doesn’t have a chance to get sad about it:
- a sandpit or designated digging area in the yard
- a paddling pool filled with water or plastic balls
- interactive toys
- and puzzle feeders
3. Get Training
Training and training games are a great way to mimic the working relationship Labradors are hardwired to want with us. They create a sense of purpose which dogs find very satisfying. Our Dogsnet training courses offer a perfect structured program for engaging their cooperative problem solving skills.
4. Play games
Not all work needs to be a big deal. A happy working dog feels like their job is one long rewarding game anyway! And a game of fetch or hide and seek can be enough to deliver the same mood-boosting benefits. It gets them moving about, engages them in an activity with you, and strengthens your bond. If you need inspiration, take a look at these great games to play with your Lab.
5. Increase social contact
Just like us, being lonely can make dogs unhappy. If you’re out for a lot of the day, consider employing a dog sitter or using a doggy day care to provide your pup with some company. If your dog used to be one of a pair, but their buddy has passed away and you’re not ready to own another dog just yet, look into dog parks, or walking dogs for your local shelter.
6. Establish a routine
Dogs thrive when they know what to expect next. If you can establish a predictable daily sequence of meals, exercise, training games, naps and downtime together, it will give your dog confidence that he knows what’s coming up. And confident dogs are happy dogs.
7. Reward happy behavior
This sounds a little manipulative, so perhaps a better way to think of it is “don’t reward sad behavior”. Dogs repeat behavior they get rewarded for, so if you give lots of attention and tasty treats to a sad dog, they’ll keep repeating the same behavior. Try to get them happy and excited about a game or walk first, and then capture the moment with lots of praise and attention. The idea is that by encouraging a habit of embracing the good things in life, it will come more and more naturally to them.
Finally, if your dog is so profoundly sad that it’s more akin to depression, and nothing seems to shake them out of it, then medicines might help. If you think this might be your dog, arrange a chat with your vet to discuss the options.
How Will I Know When My Sad Dog Feels Better?
You’ll know you’ve succeeded in cheering a sad dog up when:
- they hold their tail up high and wag it with enthusiasm
- they have floppy ears
- their stance is relaxed
- they’re playful
- and they lean into you for a bit of love.
It’s a great feeling!
Do You Have A Sad Dog?
Our forum members have a wealth of knowledge and experience helping their Labs get the best out of life – why not drop in for support and inspiration?
Kaminski, Evolution of facial muscle anatomy in dogs, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2019.
Storengen et al, A descriptive study of 215 dogs diagnosed with separation anxiety, Applied Animal Behavior Science, 2014.
Palagi et al, Rapid mimicry and emotional contagion in domestic dogs, Royal Society of Open Science, 2015.
Yong & Ruffman, Emotional contagion: Dogs and humans show a similar physiological response to human infant crying, Behavioral Processes, 2014.
Custance & Mayer, Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to distress in humans: an exploratory study, Animal Cognition, 2012.
Katayama, Emotional Contagion From Humans to Dogs Is Facilitated by Duration of Ownership, Frontiers in Psychology, 2019.
Sundman et al, Long-term stress levels are synchronized in dogs and their owners, Scientific Reports, 2019.
How to tell if your dog is happy, PDSA, accessed June 2020.
Spady & Ostrander, Canine Behavioral Genetics: Pointing Out the Phenotypes and Herding up the Genes, American Journal of Human Genetics, 2008.
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website