By Jennifer Viegas, Discovery Channel
Dogs may empathize with humans more than any other animal, including humans themselves, several new studies suggest.
The latest research, published in the journal Animal Cognition, found that pet dogs may truly be man (or woman’s) best friend if a person is in distress. That distressed individual does not even have to be someone the dog knows.
“I think there is good reason to suspect dogs would be more sensitive to human emotion than other species,” co-author Deborah Custance told Discovery News. “We have domesticated dogs over a long period of time. We have selectively bred them to act as our companions.”
“Thus,” she added,” 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.”
Custance and colleague Jennifer Mayer, both from the Department of Psychology at the University of London Goldsmiths College, exposed 18 pet dogs — representing different ages and breeds — to four separate 20-second human encounters. The human participants included the dogs’ owners as well as strangers.
During one experimental condition, the people hummed in a weird way. For that one, the scientists were trying to see if unusual behavior itself could trigger canine concern. The people also talked and pretended to cry.
The majority of the dogs comforted the person, owner or not, when that individual was pretending to cry. The dogs acted submissive as they nuzzled and licked the person, the canine version of “there, there.” Custance and Mayer say this behavior is consistent with empathic concern and the offering of comfort.
Next: How do dogs do it?