Anyone who has ever owned a dog will tell you that dogs respond to human emotions. When we are feeling happy, our dogs share our happiness and want to play with us. When we are sad or in pain, they try to make us feel better. They come to us and nuzzle us. They may try to cheer us up by laying their heads in our laps or bringing us toys.
Dogs are used as therapy animals to comfort people who are suffering.
How do we know that dogs really do empathize with humans?
When a dog’s owner cries, does the dog come to the owner because it wants the owner’s attention, because it is curious about what the crying means or because it really is feeling sorry for the owner?
Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer of the University of London’s Goldsmiths College Department of Psychology performed an experiment to find out.
Eighteen dogs and their owners took part in the experiment, which tested the dogs’ behavior under four different conditions: the owner hummed Mary Had a Little Lamb in front of the dog, a stranger hummed Mary Had a Little Lamb in front of the dog, the owner cried in front of the dog or a stranger cried in front of the dog. In all cases, the both the owner and the stranger were in front of the dog at the same time.
The humming did seem to make the dogs curious. A dog would spend more time looking at a person when that person was humming than it did when that that person had been speaking. Dogs frequently observe humans talking to one another; they do not often hear humans humming Mary had a little lamb.
The dogs responded to crying as well as to humming. However, the response to crying differed greatly from the response to humming. The dogs approached the crying humans with submissive postures. They nuzzled and licked the humans.
The dogs did not behave this way in response to humming, even though both humming and crying were unusual behaviors.
When a human cried, the dog approached whoever was crying, whether it was the owner or the stranger. It showed no preference of the owner. This shows that the dog was responding to the crying; it was not seeking comfort from its owner.
Constance and Mayer say that when the dogs approached the crying humans and behaved submissively, the dogs might have been showing empathy. They may have been conditioned, by positive reinforcement, to approach and try to comfort any human being who cries in front of them.
Dogs are not the only animals that have shown empathy to others. Monkeys and rats, for example, will give up food if doing so will prevent other monkeys or other rats from getting electric shocks.
But empathy between animals of different species, such as between dogs and humans, is unusual.
Dogs and humans show their emotions in different ways. Dogs do not shed tears. Humans do not lower their heads, hold their ears back and hold their tails between their legs when they are worried. (Humans can’t move their ears the way dogs can and humans don’t have tails.)
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Yet we still respond to each others’ feelings.
The dog was domesticated over 15,000 years ago. Like all old friends, dogs and humans have learned to understand one another.