Can Dogs Feel Empathy?

Does your dog really care about you, or does he just love that you feed him? Is he really “man’s best friend,” or do humans just project all that doggie affection onto their pets? A new scientific study shows that dogs may in fact feel genuine empathy for their owners.

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The traditional definition of “empathy” is the ability to share the emotions and feelings of another person – something not often evident in the animal world, even among domesticated animals such as cats. Conducted by psychologist Deborah Custance (a lecturer at Goldsmiths College, Department of Psychology, London) and Jennifer Mayer, this study matched up eighteen different dogs with several humans, and tested how the dogs responded to various common human behaviors.

The Study

Their findings showed that of the eighteen dogs, fifteen responded with apparent concern or playfulness when the humans were crying. According to Custance, “When the stranger pretended to cry, rather than approaching their usual source of comfort, their owner, dogs sniffed, nuzzled and licked the stranger instead. The dogs’ pattern of response was behaviorally consistent with an expression of empathic concern”. What sets this particular canine response apart is that other common human behaviors, such as humming, didn’t provoke the same response in the dogs being studied ? implying that the dog’s motivation was not simple curiosity, but a more empathic response.

Other Studies of Dog Empathy

Other studies have shown that while dogs may not feel “empathy” as human beings know it, they are definitely affected by human emotions and will often respond accordingly. A dog that sees a sad owner may appear to become sad himself, and turn to the human for mutual comfort; a phenomenon scientists call emotional contagion. In short, when your dog sees you feeling sad, it may be that he feels sad, too, and will try to give and seek comfort at the same time. In other words, dogs may not just feel empathy, as the study above implies, but sympathy as well — sharing the emotions of its owners.

Most dog owners probably don’t need such a study to know their animals care about them, and have anecdotes of their own proving that their loyal pets love them as much as any human. Many pet owners choose dogs precisely because they are so emotionally responsive to human behavior. A dog seeing a human in misery might respond by licking the person’s hand or approaching with a favorite toy, hoping that some play will drag the human out of their doldrums.

Anyone who’s come home to find their pet pooch ecstatic to see them, or watched a despondent dog whine sadly at the door while waiting for their master to return, knows that the bond between dog and human is an emotional one.

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Author: This article was compiled by Andy Graven who works for Invisible Fence, providers of invisible pet fences.