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Canine Empathy: Your Dog Really Does Care If You Are Unhappy

New research shows that dogs respond to their owner's unhappiness.

People often report that it seems as if their dogs are reading their emotional state and responding in much the same way that a human would, providing sympathy and comfort, or joining in their joy.

For example, an acquaintance named Deborah told me that she had just gotten off of the phone after learning that her sister's husband had died and was sitting on the sofa wiping tears from her eyes and trying to deal with her sadness. She said, "At that moment Angus [her Golden retriever] came over to me and laid his head on my knee and began to whimper. A moment later he quietly walked away, and then returned with one of his favorite toys and quietly put it in my lap, and gently licked my hand. I knew he was trying to comfort me. I believe that he was feeling my pain and hoping that the toy which made him happy might also help me to feel better."

Such incidents involving dogs appear to be quite common, and at face value, they seem to show that dogs are showing empathy for their owners. Generally speaking, empathy can be defined as the ability to put oneself into another person's shoes, in order to understand and even share their emotions and feelings. Although dog owners seem to be quite sure that their dogs have empathy for their feelings, if you make that suggestion to a group of psychologists or behavioral biologists, it is more apt to start an argument rather than to bring out nods of agreement.

The problem is that empathy is a fairly complex emotion. There is a consensus that the mind of a dog is very similar in capacity and behaviors to the mind of a human 2- to 3-year-old. Although there is some data suggesting that human toddlers begin to show the beginnings of empathy sometime around their second birthday, it is quite primitive at that age, and many scientists think that clear evidence of empathy doesn't really show up until the child is four years old or more.

That would, of course, require a more advanced mental capacity than what is usually credited to canines. These scientists tend to believe that something more primitive is going on, namely emotional contagion. This is where an individual responds to the emotions of another without fully understanding what that individual is feeling.

A simple example is when in a nursery, one infant starts to cry and causes all of the other infants within earshot to do the same. Those other infants are not showing empathy, but rather are responding to and adopting the first child's emotional state without understanding why.

Thus, these researchers suggest that when your dog sees your emotional distress, they are in effect "infected by it," and, in response to their own feelings, they come to nuzzle you. Their aim is not to comfort you, but rather to gain comfort for themselves.

Some other scientists are even more cynical, not even crediting the dog with reading the person's emotion, but rather suggesting that in response to seeing a person acting in an unusual way, the dog is coming over to sniff and paw at them out of curiosity.

Two psychologists, Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer from Goldsmiths College in London, decided to see if dogs really had empathy when their owners were in emotional distress. They modified a procedure which has been successfully used to measure empathy in human toddlers. They tested 18 dogs in their owner’s homes. The setup was very simple: The dog's owner and a stranger sat about 6 feet apart and engaged in several activities while the whole thing was filmed. In turn, each individual would speak or hum in an unusual staccato manner, or pretend to cry.

The critical condition, of course, is the crying. These researchers reasoned that if the dog was showing empathy, its behavior would be primarily focused on the person who was crying rather than on themselves. Therefore, they would most likely engage in attempts at comforting or helping. The expectation would be that the dog would nuzzle, whine, lick, lay their head on the person's lap, or offer similar comforting behaviors.

Now, here is the trick which allows us to sort out what is actually happening. If the dog is simply upset by its owner's crying, it should go to that person to comfort itself. However, suppose that the stranger is crying. If the dog has no empathy, but merely is responding because of emotional contagion, it will still feel distressed. However, the dog should not seek solace from the stranger who does not have an emotion bond with him, but rather should go to its owner for comfort in this situation.

What the researchers found was that the dog not only approached and tried to comfort their owner when they cried, but also approached the stranger who displayed unhappiness, seeming to offer sympathy and support in much the way that humans display empathy for each other.

The researchers also reasoned that if the dogs' approach to people was principally motivated by curiosity than any relatively uncommon behavior, then the strange humming behaviors should cause some reaction. However, this did not happen. When the owner or the stranger hummed in an unusual manner, the dogs might have looked at them but did not approach, and certainly did not seem to offer any comfort.

The conclusion seems obvious, and perhaps clear enough to convince some of the more skeptical scientists who have been unwilling to allow that dogs might have much of the same emotional responses as a young human child.

In the same manner that young humans show empathy and understanding of the emotions of others, so do dogs. Furthermore, we appear to have bred our dogs so that they not only show empathy, but also show sympathy, which is a desire to comfort others who might be in emotional distress.

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