Far more  14 percent  were planning to get a pet when they retire.

London - As most dog owners will confirm, a four- legged friend is quick to offer a reassuring nuzzle when you are feeling low.

But this natural empathy also extends to strangers, scientists claim.

They believe dogs naturally seek to reassure humans in distress.

In tests, when either their owner or a stranger started crying, most dogs approached them “providing reassurance and comfort”.

Researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London said there has been anecdotal evidence of this in the past but no scientific studies to prove it. They filmed 18 dogs of various breeds in their homes as the owner, and then a stranger, started to talk, hum loudly and 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.

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 yellow labrador which was absorbed in chasing its tail until someone pretended to cry, and then it rushed up and put its paws on her shoulder.

Miss Mayer said: “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.

“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.

“They were responding to the person’s emotion, not their own needs.”

Miss Mayer, whose study is published in the journal Animal Cognition, stressed that because dogs have no language we will never know if they can understand why someone is sad and needs comforting. - Daily Mail