Dogs Are Dogs, Not Slightly Dumb Chimps

Dog play isn’t driven by mimicry: dogs are highly sensitive, but not empathetic

Posted Dec 23, 2015

Every Christmas Day here in the UK, Her Majesty The Queen broadcasts to the nation.  Despite her well-known enthusiasm for dogs and Corgis in particular, she is probably unaware that just two days earlier, her Royal Society published a research paper on dog behaviour.  It’s a feel-good story: a team of researchers from Italy claim to have uncovered a form of emotional contagion in dogs.  Unfortunately the research contains not just one but two fundamental flaws: the dogs they studied weren’t mimicking one another, nor is it likely that the behaviour they observed was driven by empathy.

When two dogs play, they use a small repertoire of signals to indicate that their intentions are playful.  They need to do this because if their objectives are misunderstood, they could easily get hurt.  Any animal as well-armoured as one of the Canidae risks getting a nasty bite if it chooses the wrong play-partner, so a system of “safety signals” evolved, probably many millions of years ago.  These have been well studied, perhaps most extensively by Marc Bekoff (he of these pages).  Two of these, the “play-bow” and the “play-face” (referred to in the paper as “relaxed open-mouth”) have survived domestication, and watchful dog owners can observe their dogs performing them whenever and wherever they find a potential play-partner.

Alan Peters, from "Dog Sense", used with permission
Source: Alan Peters, from "Dog Sense", used with permission

Contrary to the claim in the paper, there is no need to suppose that two dogs are engaging in mimicry when first one, and then the other, performs either of these actions.  They are simply species-typical signals – as close to Tinbergen’s concept of “fixed-action-patterns” as makes little difference – that when performed by two dogs, convey “I’m playing”; “So am I”.  It was found in the study that these signals are most commonly performed between dogs that already knew one another well, and that play sessions which contained many repetitions of these signals lasted the longest – both consistent with the idea that their function is simply to keep the other play-partner engaged in playing.  Dogs find play extremely rewarding (these days, most detection dogs are trained using play with their handler as the main reward) and so will tend to repeat any action that starts or restarts a bout of play. 

What would true mimicry look like?  Perhaps if one day a dog “invented” a new way of signalling playfulness, say by raising one hind paw, and then another dog copied it, recognising the other’s intention, that would count as mimicry – but instead, dogs are universally using patterns of behaviour that they inherited from their ancestors, and so both the performance and the message conveyed must be rooted in instinct.

So, the dogs are not mimicking one another, but does that inevitably mean that they’re not empathetic, as the paper claims?  Empathetic mimicry has been studied extensively in humans and also in higher primates, but these share a common brain structure – mirror neurons, for example.  The carnivore brain is constructed along subtly different lines, and a consensus on how they think is emerging from the considerable body of research into the cognitive abilities of dogs, carried out over the past two decades: in a nutshell, there is no conclusive evidence that dogs have a “theory-of-mind” – an understanding that the behaviour of the animals around them is controlled by a mind like their own.  This is perhaps best summarised by Juliane Bräuer, writing in Kaminski & Marshall-Pescini’s 2014 book The Social Dog: “there is no evidence that domestic dogs possess a humanlike theory of mind...Dogs’ special talents lie in the understanding of humans’ communicative intent”.  To that might be added – “and other dogs’ communicative intent”.  If dogs can’t grasp other dogs’ motivations, then how could they possibly empathise?

However, dogs do a very convincing job of persuading their owners that they are empathetic.  How do they do this?  Dogs are the supreme readers of human body-language – far superior to the otherwise brainier chimpanzee, and probably better than many people (good thing they can’t play poker).  Recent research has shown that they can “read” the various elements of the human face – the mouth, for example - almost as well as they can a complete facial expression.  Pet dogs are also profoundly attached to their owners, and so when they notice unusual behaviour in their owner, perhaps due to illness, they become extra-attentive, trying to glean some clue, any clue, as to what might be going to happen next.  Owners naturally interpret this as sympathy, and many get a significant amount of comfort and reassurance from that – and why not?

Ultimately, dogs’ needs will be best served if we try to appreciate them for what they are, which is – dogs.  Comparisons with human children, chimpanzees or other primates can be unhelpful, because they can lead to misinterpretation of dogs’ behaviour (such as the widespread but erroneous belief that dogs are capable of feeling guilty).

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