15,000 years of experience tells humans that dogs ‘feel our pain.’ Now a new study suggests that the empathy is real.
Researcher and psychologist Deborah Custance from the University of London published her study in the journal Animal Cognition.
She and colleague Jennifer Mayer ran a test with 18 pet dogs, of differing breeds, with their owners — and then strangers — either talking, pretending to cry, or humming. This separated out the dog’s responses as emotional content from just curiosity.
She found that more dogs would respond to a human when they think they are crying than anything else. And they responded in a submissive manner consistent with empathic concern and comfort-offering. They also responded to any human, not just their owner.
The humming was designed to be a relatively novel behaviour, which might be likely to pique the dogs’ curiosity. The fact that the dogs differentiated between crying and humming indicates that their response to crying was not purely driven by curiosity.
Rather, the crying carried greater emotional meaning for the dogs and provoked a stronger overall response than either humming or talking.
If the dogs’ approaches during the crying condition were motivated by self-oriented comfort-seeking, they would be more likely to approach their usual source of comfort, their owner, rather than the stranger.
No such preference was found. The dogs approached whoever was crying regardless of their identity. Thus they were responding to the person’s emotion, not their own needs, which is suggestive of empathic-like comfort-offering behaviour.
This isn’t conclusive proof, Custance writes that it is possible that dogs learn to approach crying people because they receive affection when they do.
However, researchers are beginning to look into dog’s brains using MRI scanners, as we reported last month. And empathy is one subject they want to study.
Picture by Anders.Bachmann