Dogs feel empathy for human suffering

Dogs who hurry to comfort their owners may be doing so out of empathy, according to a study published in the journal Learning & Behavior. Not only can they perceive changes in human emotional states, but man’s best friend will take it a step further and overcome physical obstacles to go to an owner’s aid.

Humans and dogs share a strong emotional bond arising from domestication over tens of thousands of years. But despite many popular anecdotes of dog heroism, the scientific evidence for dogs providing actual help to a human in need is mixed.

By showing that dogs will perform an action to help a person in distress, the new study advances our knowledge of canine empathy and cross-species helping behaviour more generally.

In a series of tests led by then-undergraduate Emily Sanford of Macalester College, 34 dogs were evaluated for empathetic behaviour using the trapped-other paradigm, an experimental design previously used only in rats.

Each dog was separated from its owner by a clear door held shut with magnets. Seated behind the door, each owner would either hum a song or pretend to cry.

They opened the door in both scenarios, but did so to get to their crying owners three times faster than when the owners were humming.

Heart rate monitors showed that the dogs that opened the door were stressed by the crying, but not too stressed to overcome the obstacle. In contrast, the dogs showing the greatest signs of stress were not able to open the door, suggesting that they were too upset by the crying to act.

This difference in stress levels between openers and non-openers was not observed when the humans were humming instead of crying. “The dogs that opened the door showed empathy because they had to suppress their personal stress response in order to open,” explains Sanford, now a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University.

And the dogs that still opened the door even when their owner was humming? Recorded stress levels indicate that opening behaviour appeared to be motivated not by empathy, but rather a mixture of curiosity and desire for social contact.

Interestingly, there was no observed difference in performance between therapy dogs and non-therapy dogs, nor by breed or age. The outcome may have implications for the criteria used to select and train therapy dogs.

“It might be beneficial for therapy organizations to consider more traits important for therapeutic improvement, such as empathy, in their testing protocols,” the researchers suggest.

It is likely that some form of helping behaviour also occurs in other pet species, such as cats and parrots, although further studies are needed to confirm this.

There is still much to be learned about how dogs’ minds work, notes co-author Julia Meyers-Manor. “This is a baby step to understanding how empathy may have evolved and what makes individuals act empathetically.”

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