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.
Research in the last decade indicates thousands of years of living, working and playing with people has given dogs the innate ability to perceive human emotions and communicate with their human families through gestures and glances.
Living with Humans Has Changed the Nature of Dogs
Scientists in Hungary have concluded dogs bond with their owners in the same way children bond with their parents. According to Adam Miklosi of the Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest:
“What we found is that just as babies display a variety of levels of attachment towards their parents, dogs also show different levels of attachment to their owner.”
Miklosi believes thousands of years of co-existence with human companions have caused dogs to become dependent on us. And the stronger the attachment between owner and canine, the more likely it is the dog will look to his human for certain cues rather than relying on his own thoughts and actions.
According to Miklosi, when you add selective breeding to co-existence with people, the result are dogs that form strong bonds and are genetically wired to learn and obey human rules.
Vilmos Cysani, the head of the Budapest research team, says “The dog’s natural environment is the human family or other human social settings.”
Researchers in the U.S. have used DNA science to estimate that dogs may have been domesticated tens of thousands of years earlier than previously thought. Prolonged exposure to people seems to have made dogs more responsive to human gestures than animals considered more intelligent than canines – for example, chimpanzees.
Looking to Their Humans for Cues
Miklosi and his colleagues in Budapest were interested in discerning how much of what dogs sense about their owners’ emotions is instinctive.
The assumption has been that as canines evolved to be companion animals, they became ‘dumbed down’ because humans provided for all their needs. But according to Miklosi:
“They acquired skills that make them adaptive to the human environment. They interact with humans. They learn from humans.”
Miklosi conducted an experiment, published in the December 2005 issue of Animal Behaviour, comparing dogs with their closest relatives, wolves. He and his fellow researchers began caring for 13 wolf pups when they were just a few days old, raising them in homes with humans just as if they were family dogs.
As the wolves grew, they were in constant physical contact with their humans and went virtually everywhere with them. In fact, the wolves received more human interaction than pet dogs normally get from their owners.
The next part of the experiment involved training the wolves and several different breeds of ordinary dogs to get a piece of meat by pulling on a string. After all the wolves and dogs figured out how to get the meat, the researchers attached the string in such a way that they couldn’t get the meat no matter how hard they pulled.
At this point, the contrast in the behavior of the wolves and dogs was remarkable. The wolves just continued to pull on the string, but the dogs stopped pulling as soon as they realized something was different, and turned to look at the faces of the researchers. According to Miklosi:
“The dogs gave up much earlier. They were, very quickly, looking at the humans, the owners, looking at their faces. That is what is interesting. That never happened with the wolves. They just kept pulling. But the dogs, what they did was basically look at the owners. If you observe this as a human, you would describe it as an asking-for-help gesture.”
Dogs Really Are Family
The researchers concluded from this experiment that dogs, through extensive co-existence with humans, have developed an instinctive capacity to communicate with us to some degree.
Since both the wolves and dogs in the study were raised in the same manner, the dogs’ desire to ‘talk’ with humans to solve problems appears to be innate – an evolutionary byproduct of domestication.
“The dogs have learned our language, to some extent. So we don’t need to learn dog language. They can use our channels of communication, like vision … You can point for a dog and communicate with it. You can point for a wolf, but it won’t understand what you are doing.”
Marc Bekoff, a dog behavior researcher at the University of Colorado in Boulder, is a believer. He says Adam Miklosi’s experiment shows that ‘dogs aren’t just dumbed-down wolves.’
“A lot of people think that domesticated animals, when compared to wilder animals, aren’t as smart,” Bekoff said. “It shows that species adapt to the social niche in which they live. And the social niche for a dog would be its human companions.”
“I think part of the reason there is this strong bond between dogs and humans is because we are empathetic to them and they show empathy to us,” Bekoff said.
“We can never know for sure. But I’ve done a lot of work on animals’ emotions. Animals and humans share a lot of the same neurological structures and the same neurochemistry. I think it’s really dog empathy.”
So if your favorite canine companion seems to know when you’re feeling anxious or sad, there’s a good chance he’s instinctively sensing your mood. Our uniquely sensitive dogs provide a tremendous measure of comfort to us. But it’s also important to realize our responsibility as their guardians.
Just as we try our best to shelter children from upsetting circumstances and undue stress, we should do the same for the devoted four-legged members of our family unit.