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Does Your Dog Empathize with You?

Does Your Dog Empathize with You?

By Maria Goodavage for Dogster Magazine

In my book Soldier Dogs, I describe a magnificent military dog named Rex. He was big and looked fierce, but in reality he was a gentle giant. He had failed the aggression portion of training because any time he bit someone’s protective gear, he’d get this “Oh my God, I’m sorry, are you okay?” look and back off, clearly concerned.

He went on to become an excellent off-leash bomb sniffer, and when deployed, he took on a volunteer gig of sorts: The sensitive fellow made it his mission to comfort the soldiers who were having a rough time.

“He’d always find the one soldier who was having a hard day and hang out with them,” says his handler, Army Sergeant Amanda Ingraham. His favorite form of free therapy was to cheer up soldiers by getting them to play with a water bottle. Maybe Rex reasoned that since he liked playing with water bottles, so would others.

Also from Dogster Magazine: Missy, the Dog Abandoned on a Mountain, Finds a Home with Her Rescuer

He would take a water bottle in his mouth and trot up to a down soldier and bonk him or her with it. Or he’d sit next to a soldier and crunch the bottle loudly, periodically banging it against the nearest part of his newfound friend. Eventually his “patient” would take the bait, and a grand game of tug of war or a big chase would ensue. Inevitably everyone felt better afterward.

Many military dogs whose stories I learned during my research proved to be phenomenal empathizers. One seasoned old canine veteran helped his new human partner learn the ropes of the job, but he was also there for him emotionally.

“He’s always had my back,” recalls Air Force Staff Sergeant James Bailey. “He was always there to make sure I was okay, whether he needed to help protect me, or when I was a little down and he’d come over and put his head in my lap. He could read my body language, he could read my emotions, like no one else could.”

Of course, I realize it’s not just a military dog phenomenon. Over the years, I’ve experienced this sort of behavior from my own dogs, and I’ve heard about plenty of other compassionate dogs as well.

And now, what so many of us know from experience has been confirmed by science. New research finds that dogs instinctively react to people who appear to be in distress, according to Discovery News.

A study published in the journal Cognition had people — strangers and owners — cry or pretend to do so in front of dogs. Most dogs offered comfort by nuzzling and licking the cryer and acting almost submissively. It’s the canine equivalent of “there, there,” say researchers.

Dogs’ long history with humans has led to this comforting behavior, says study co-author Deborah Custance.

“I think there is good reason to suspect dogs would be more sensitive to human emotion than other species,” she told Discovery News. “We have domesticated dogs over a long period of time. We have selectively bred them to act as our companions. Thus, those dogs that responded sensitively to our emotional cues may have been the individuals that we would be more likely to keep as pets and breed from.”

Makes sense to me. How about you? We’d love to hear your experiences of how your dog seems to know how you’re feeling. Has your dog offered a helping paw when you’re down? Has she made you feel better?

About the Author: Maria Goodavage is a New York Times bestselling author and columnist for Dogster Magazine.

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Read more: Behavior & Communication, Dogs, Pets,

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66 comments

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2:09AM PDT on Oct 31, 2012

I Must admit that some dogs are more empathetic than others! I have had dogs who just don't seem to REALLY understand when you are suffering, but others are so upset when you are that they MUST be feeling our pain with us. One of my old dogs, Bucky Dog, would know just by looking at me if I was sad and would come up to me when I was sitting down and put his paw up onto my shoulder and very gently stare up into my eyes with a look of total compassion. If I was crying, he would wimper and obviously be trying to tell me he undestood. Naturally there will be some people who think this is just crazy and we are just andropomorphising... But most of us know without a doubt... we are NOT! It takes a very special human to be kinder and more loving than a dog!

3:47PM PDT on Oct 19, 2012

duh

11:21AM PDT on Oct 19, 2012

Sometimes when I am sad and/or depressed, and even before I cry (if I need to cry) my dog comes over to me and looks at me with her "cow eyes" and wags her tail and stuff to make me feel better.

It's like she's thinking: "I am here, your amazing dog companion, aren't you feeling oh so much better already?" xD It's very cute and it does make me feel better, even if just a little :3

6:13AM PDT on Oct 10, 2012

yes, of course they do!!!!!

6:07AM PDT on Oct 10, 2012

My 'babies' always know when I need cheering up. They are my best friends and I love them with all my heart.

7:24AM PDT on Sep 29, 2012

great article, thanks for sharing :)

8:49PM PDT on Sep 27, 2012

Animals know emotion...they know when you are happy, sad, sick, etc. They always seem to know what to do to make you feel so much better.

9:09AM PDT on Sep 27, 2012

DOG!!!!!! yes they are the best of the best!!!!! they better then humanes!!!! they are love, soul, and compassion!!!!! dog!!!! are my life, and always will be!!!!!. but i want to knooow what happen to rex???? anybody knows??? please let us know!!!!!

11:15PM PDT on Sep 26, 2012

Animals absolutely know when we're feeling down. I have seen this demonstrated many times. So many humans believe we're the only species that feels, yet whales, elephants, apes, dogs and others grieve when a family member dies. A mother cow bellows and calls for her baby calf, day and night for up to a week and more when it is taken from her. Cats will suddenly show up next to a good guardian like a quiet shadow when you're upset. Parrots feel jealousy. Magpies recognise human faces so they know who lives locally, and they only swoop on 'intruders' during their breeding season. We need to understand that all species have awareness and feelings. If they're living and breathing how could they possibly not?

9:42AM PDT on Sep 26, 2012

Thanks for the article. I think animals and humans interact.

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