When the animals are confronted with a human displaying strong feelings, they themselves produce a similar emotional response, the researchers found.
The discovery could cast light on how dogs’ pack behaviour has been translated into the modern world.
Biomedical scientist Dr Karine Silva, of the University of Porto, says that dogs even possess certain human-like social skills that chimpanzees, our closest relatives, do not.
Writing in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, she says the animals’ response goes beyond simply mimicing their owners’ – a reaction known as “emotional contagion”.
Dr Silva said: “A study showing that pets, namely dogs, behave as ‘upset’ as children when exposed to familiar people faking distress, strongly suggests ‘sympathetic concern’.
“Also, it has been reported that untrained dogs may be sensitive to human emergencies and may act appropriately to summon help, which, if true, suggests empathic perspective taking.”
– The Telegraph UK