If your canine companion seems to sense your every mood, it’s probably more than your imagination or wishful thinking.
According to a paper recently published in Biology Letters, dogs have the capacity to empathize with us to such an extent that therapy dogs appear to exhibit similar emotions to their sick or upset human companions.
And it’s not that dogs simply copy human responses, according to study authors Karine Silva and Liliana Sousa:
"Indeed, a study showing that pets, namely dogs, behave as 'upset' as children when exposed to familiar people faking distress, strongly suggests 'sympathetic concern.”
"Also it has been reported that untrained dogs may be sensitive to human emergencies and may act appropriately to summon help, which, if true, suggests empathic perspective taking."
Interestingly, in experiments where dog owners only pretended to have an accident or a heart attack, the dogs seemed confused and didn’t really react. This leads scientists to theorize dogs need to also smell and hear certain aspects of actual stress before they have an instinctive response.
Another experiment concluded that therapy dogs are affected on both an emotional and physical level by their jobs, and benefit from massages and other calming measures after a work session.
The study authors think there are three primary reasons why dogs have the ability to empathize with humans:
- Like wolves, dogs are highly social animals that engage in cooperative activities and are believed to have some ability to empathize with their fellow wolves.
- Biological changes produced during the domestication of dogs may have allowed them to synchronize their wolf-inherited empathic capacities with those of humans.
- Breed diversification and selection for canine intelligence may have increased the dog ability to empathize.