We often call domestic dogs our "best friends" and clearly they influence our behavior in many different ways. Anyone who has lived with one or more of these remarkable beings knows how often their life is changed compared to when they didn't share their home with a dog. And, of course, that's how it should be, because dogs are sentient, feeling, animals who want and need to live in peace and safety and we are essentially their lifeline, their oxygen.
Not only do we form extremely close relationships with our "best friends", but they also clearly do the same with us. And, while these friendships influence their behavior in many obvious ways, there are also subtle ways in which we affect the behavior of dogs.
Friendship influences dog behavior in subtle ways
In a recent essay I reported on how dogs eye-flash familiar humans and now we know that familiarity also influences contagious yawning. In a study carried out by Teresa Romero, Akitsugu Konno, and Toshikazu Hasegawa called "Familiarity Bias and Physiological Responses in Contagious Yawning by Dogs Support Link to Empathy", patterns of what's called contagious yawning were studied to discriminate between the two possible mediating mechanisms, namely, empathy or distress. A summary of the results is as follows: "... the dogs yawned more frequently when watching the familiar model [their owner] than the unfamiliar one [the experimenter] demonstrating that the contagiousness of yawning in dogs correlated with the level of emotional proximity. Moreover, subjects’ heart rate did not differ among conditions suggesting that the phenomenon of contagious yawning in dogs is unrelated to stressful events. Our findings are consistent with the view that contagious yawning is modulated by affective components of the behavior and may indicate that rudimentary forms of empathy could be present in domesticated dogs."
Is it really rudimentary empathy or the "real thing"?
In contrast to other studies, these results support the conclusion that empathy (emotional proximity), and not stress, influenced patterns of contagious yawning. The entire research paper is accessible online outlining the methods that were used, showing the statistical analyses of the data, and discussing how these results compare to other studies on dogs and other animals. Nonetheless, I would have liked to see more discussion of one of the authors' conclusions, notably that "rudimentary forms of empathy could be present in domesticated dogs." Why do they use the word "rudimentary"? Just about all definitions of "rudimentary" offer synonyms such as elementary, primary, basic, and primitive, but it's entirely possible for dogs that yawning might be an indication of sophisticated and deep feelings of empathy. Given the close and long-term relationship that dogs have had with humans, there is every reason to argue that dogs have evolved the capacity for deep empathy that is expressed in many different ways, including contagious yawning.
Time and time again, as we learn more and more about the highly evolved cognitive and emotional capacities of nonhuman animals, we're amazed and surprised at just how sophisticated they really are. And, as Jessica Pierce and I conclude in our book Wild justice: The moral lives of animals, there is every reason to believe and to argue that many nonhuman animals feel deep empathy, the "real thing."
Romero T, Konno A, Hasegawa T (2013) Familiarity Bias and Physiological Responses in Contagious Yawning by Dogs Support Link to Empathy. PLoS ONE 8(8): e71365. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071365