Empathy

Do Dogs Have Empathy for Other Dogs?

When a dog hears the whimpers of another dog, he tends to react.

Posted Nov 02, 2016

Makarova Viktoria/Shutterstock
Source: Makarova Viktoria/Shutterstock

I was recently trimming the nails of my little Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Ripley. He is generally a placid and accepting dog but he does not like having his nails cut. He showed that he was under stress by whimpering throughout the process. Meanwhile, my young Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, Ranger, paced around as if he was upset, and the moment that Ripley was placed on the floor, Ranger came over to sniff at him, lick his face in a comforting manner, and make play invitations.

As a psychologist my interpretation of Ranger's behavior is that he was empathizing with Ripley's distress. Empathy is the ability to interpret the emotions of another individual; it also involves responding emotionally in a similar manner. The positive effect of empathy is that it often leads to a desire to provide consolation and support for an individual who is having stressful or negative emotions. That seemed to be what Ranger was trying to do in response to Ripley's whines and whimpers.

We have lots of data that demonstrates dogs can read the emotions of familiar humans, and show empathy and soothing behavior to people when they can (click here or here to learn more). We know that dogs can form true friendships with other dogs (click here to learn more), but it is strange that there has been little research on whether dogs actually show empathy for other dogs. However, recent research from a team of investigators headed by Mylene Quervel-Chaumette at the University of Vienna's Messerli Research Institute provides data that shows dogs do interpret and respond to signs of stress in other dogs, particularly those they are most familiar with.

The subjects of this investigation were 16 pairs of dogs of various breeds. Only dogs that had lived together for at least a year were tested. The researchers wanted to see how dogs responded to sounds that indicated another dog was under stress, specifically whines and whimpers. To be sure that the whines corresponded to actual sounds of a dog that was distressed, they rigged a situation in which a dog was brought into an unfamiliar room and left there by their owner. The whines and whimpers that resulted were then recorded. This was done for all of the dogs in the study, plus a set of additional dogs to provide the sounds of unfamiliar dogs. In addition, a control sound was prepared. This was a computer-generated sound which had the same kinds of sound frequencies and timed bursts that a dog produces.

During the test sessions a dog was brought into a room with its owner. The owner sat in a chair facing away from the dog and wore a set of headphones, so they would not be able to hear anything in the room. After the dog was given time to familiarize itself with the environment, a set of sounds were played through speakers. These could be the whining sounds of the dog's housemate, whines from an unfamiliar dog, or the computer-generated control sound. The dog's reactions were then videotaped. After this, the dog's housemate was brought into the room for a reunion. At various times during the procedure, samples of the dogs' saliva were taken to provide a physiological measure of stress.

When the actual whines and whimpers of a dog were played, the dogs hearing these sounds showed much more alertness and interest, as compared with the reactions to the computer-generated control sound. On hearing these sounds of canine distress, the listening dogs also showed more stress behaviors, such as licking their lips, low body posture, tail between the legs, yawning, shaking, and whining. The effect was greatest when the sounds they heard were the sounds of stress generated by their housemate. This suggests that the dogs were interpreting the sounds of canine unhappiness and reacting to it—and more so if the sounds were produced by a familiar dog.

When their housemate was brought into the room, the dogs tended to show many concern-related behaviors directed toward this dog. This included staying close to them, licking their faces, tail wagging, rubbing their body alongside the other dog, showing greeting behaviors, and trying to initiate play. These behaviors were more likely to occur when the sounds they had listened to earlier came from the dog they lived with.

All of this looks a lot like empathy.

A final bit of data has to do with the level of the stress hormone, cortisol, found in the dogs' saliva. Simply listening to the whining of a familiar dog drove the level of cortisol up, and it stayed up for a much longer time than when the dogs listened to the stress sounds of an unfamiliar dog.

I find it hard to interpret this kind of data as anything other than empathy. I also find it difficult to imagine that an animal as socially oriented as a dog, with the level of intelligence that we have observed in a dog, would not show empathy.

The question that remains unanswered is whether the comforting and supportive behaviors generated by the empathic canine have any helpful effect on the emotional state of the dog that initially felt stressed. I can only give you an anecdotal observation from my two dogs: Ranger's attempt to soothe Ripley's distress over getting his nails clipped quickly resulted in a mood change for the little dog. He stopped looking upset and the pair of dogs soon began to dash around the house in a friendly battle over the ownership of a plush toy.

Stanley Coren is the author of books including: Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

Reference

Quervel-Chaumette M, Faerber V, Faragó T, Marshall-Pescini S., Range F. (2016). Investigating Empathy-Like Responding to Conspecifics’ Distress in Pet Dogs. PLoS ONE, 11(4): e0152920. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0152920