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Dogs Show Empathy to Crying People, Study Shows

Dogs Show Empathy to Crying People, Study Shows

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.

Custance said:

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.

Related stories:

Do You Want to Know What Your Dog’s Really Thinking?

Hero Pitbull Drags Unconscious  Owner Off of Railroad Tracks

Hercules the Dog Saves the Day

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Picture by Anders.Bachmann

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693 comments

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7:04AM PDT on May 5, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

6:33AM PDT on Apr 9, 2013

Dogs for sure and many cats I've had, too... if I cry, they become upset and attempt to comfort... it always works, too.

4:12AM PDT on Mar 24, 2013

amazing, thank you

12:26AM PDT on Mar 22, 2013

true, when my dog notices that I am feeling down he brings a ball or if I don't go he tries to hug me.. lol

4:32PM PDT on Mar 21, 2013

My dog gets very upset when I cry. He comes over and literally hugs me. He puts his head on my shoulders and wraps his arms around me and just holds me. He will lick the tears off my face and just hold me tight and make little soothing noises while he puts his head on my shoulders. I am not kidding. Hes a wonderful comfort.

5:35AM PST on Feb 22, 2013

This is our loyal friend

3:05PM PST on Nov 14, 2012

Any person who thinks animals don't have feelings is probably a sociopath themselves.

5:25AM PST on Nov 14, 2012

I already knew this! Our late Justice, a German shepherd/husky mix, not only sensed crying, but illness, and he was all attention to let us know that he was there to offer any assistance he might be able to do.

My aunt had a brain tumor and was paralyzed and stuck in bed, except when we got her out by means of a lift once a day. We often took Justice over to my grandparents' house to visit the family, who loved him, but one thing we noticed was how attentive he was to my aunt. The first thing he would do when he got there was run into Roberta's room and jump on the bed with her, being careful not to hurt her or disturb anything. That always made her day! He knew instinctively that she was sick and was eager to do his part to make her feel better. And it really worked! I rarely saw as big a smile on her face as when Justice came to visit and showed that he really cared about her illness and wanted to do what he could to lighten her day!

8:01PM PDT on Oct 7, 2012

oh yes, they are just fantastic! - thanks

4:16AM PDT on Oct 2, 2012

that's why I love dogs

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