How dogs respond to others in distress: Do they really care?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog empathy

Story at-a-glance -

  • Scientific research has established that dogs are are empathetic to human feelings; in a groundbreaking 2016 study, researchers evaluated dogs’ empathy for other dogs
  • Study results suggest that not only do dogs empathize with the distress of other dogs, but they also show sympathetic concern
  • Another recent study suggests that not only are dogs empathetic, but some even rush to help their humans in distress
  • The study also showed that the stronger the bond between dog and owner, the more likely the dog is to offer help

If you have two dogs in the family, chances are when one of them is unhappy or anxious, the other has a noticeable reaction. Some dogs sniff a stressed housemate to try to pick up clues, while others more actively engage with their friend, almost as if they’re trying to distract him.

In 2016, researchers at the University of Vienna conducted the first-ever study to determine if dogs feel empathy for other dogs — especially dogs they know.1 Past studies prove that a form of empathy called emotional contagion exists in a wide variety of species, including dogs.

Emotional contagion is thought to be the most primitive or lowest level of empathy, and the fact that dogs experience it means they’re affected by and share the emotional states of others, including, for example, crying babies.2 Since it has been scientifically established that dogs can show empathy toward humans, the Vienna researchers decided to see if they also feel empathy for members of their own species.

Researchers evaluated dogs’ responses to three sets of sounds, including two recordings of other dogs in distress

For the study, the research team recruited 16 pairs of dogs of various breeds. Each pair had lived under the same roof for a least one year. To get recordings of actual distress, the owners brought one of their dogs into an unfamiliar room and left them there so their whines and cries could be recorded.

Also included in the experiment were recordings of sounds of distress from a group of dogs who were unfamiliar to the 16 pairs, along with a computer-generated control sound with the same frequencies and timing of distressed dog sounds.

In the next phase of the experiment, which occurred over a six-week period, the owners brought their second dog (the one who hadn’t been recorded) into an unfamiliar room. The owner then sat in a chair facing away from the dog and put on a pair of headphones so he or she couldn’t hear any sounds in the room (presumably to avoid sending any sort of signal to the dog).

The dogs were given time to get familiar with their surroundings, and then one of three sets of sounds was played through speakers hidden behind a screen: either the whining of the dog’s housemate, the whining of an unfamiliar dog or the control sound. The researchers videotaped the dogs as they reacted to the recorded sounds.

At subsequent two-week intervals, the same dogs were brought back to listen to the other two recordings. The dogs’ heart rates, salivary cortisol levels and behavioral responses were measured before and after listening to the recordings. Immediately after each recording ended, the dog’s housemate was brought into the room so the two could reunite.

The dogs displayed not only empathy but also sympathetic concern

Not surprisingly, the dogs in the study reacted much more strongly to the recordings of other dogs in distress than to the computer-generated control sounds. The body language the dogs displayed while listening to the sounds of other dogs included lip licking, yawning, whining, a lowered body posture, tail tucked between the legs and shaking.

Also not surprising was that the dogs showed even greater stress indicators when they heard the recordings of their housemates. This suggests they were correctly interpreting and reacting to the sounds other dogs make when they’re unhappy — especially when it was their friend who was distressed.

“When their housemate was brought into the room, the dogs tended to show many concern-related behaviors directed toward this dog,” writes dog behavior expert Dr. Stanley Coren about the study results.

“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.”3

Not only does the dogs’ behavior look like empathy, but it also rises to the level of sympathetic concern, which is a step above emotional contagion. The dogs not only felt the emotions of the distressed dogs, but also tried to alleviate their friends’ sadness by offering physical comfort and distractions.

The researchers also observed that the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, in the dogs’ saliva spiked when they listened to the recordings of the dogs, and it stayed up much longer when it was their housemate making sounds of distress.

The ‘Timmy’s in the Well’ study of dog-for-human empathy

When it comes to dogs and humans, a 2018 study suggests that not only are they empathetic, but some dogs rush to the rescue when they believe their human is in distress.

The goal of the study — named for the little boy in the long-ago television series whose co-star was his loyal Collie, Lassie — was to test the theory that dogs have a “prosocial and empathetic nature.”4 Prosocial behavior is defined as positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship.

The first experiment in the study, which was conducted by a team of university researchers, involved 34 privately owned dogs. Breeds included golden and labrador retrievers, small dogs such as the Shih Tzu and Pug, and several mixed breeds. Sixteen of the dogs were registered therapy dogs.

The experiment was conceived by one of the study co-authors, Julia Meyers-Manor, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Ripon College. One day while playing with her kids, they buried her in pillows, so she began calling for help as part of the game.

“My husband didn't come rescue me,” Meyers-Manor told “but, within a few seconds, my collie had dug me out of the pillows. I knew that we had to do a study to test that more formally."5

The researchers positioned each owner, one at a time, behind a clear door held shut with magnets. The dogs could open the door by pushing on it, and they could clearly see and hear their humans. The researchers then asked each owner to either hum the song “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” or pretend to cry.

The researchers wanted to see if the dogs would open the door more often and more quickly if their owner was crying than if they were acting normally.

The stronger the human-canine bond, the more likely dogs are to rush in to offer help

The researchers observed the dogs’ reactions and also monitored their heart rates. About half the dogs opened the door when they saw their owners, regardless of what the owner was doing. However, those dogs opened the door three times more quickly when they heard crying than when they heard humming.

In addition, the stronger the bond between the dog and owner, which was measured by a separate gaze test, the more likely the dog was to rush in to help.

Their heart rates indicated the dogs who opened the door to “rescue” their human were actually less stressed than they were during baseline measurements. They were distressed by the sound of their owner’s cries, but not too upset to try to help them. This suggests that dogs who can overcome their own distress are more likely to jump into action.

The researchers also observed that the dogs who didn’t push open the door when their humans cried were probably so stressed and troubled that it hindered their ability to do anything.

According to lead study author Emily Sanford, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University, the dogs’ behavior is similar to what is seen in children who need to help others. They are only able to offer help when they can overcome their own feelings of distress.

"It appears that adopting another's emotional state through emotional contagion alone is not sufficient to motivate an empathetic helping response; otherwise, the most stressed dogs could have also opened the door," Meyers-Manor told ScienceDaily.

"The extent of this empathetic response and under what conditions it can be elicited deserve further investigation, especially as it can improve our understanding of the shared evolutionary history of humans and dogs."6

Past research has found dogs to be very responsive to human crying, but this is the first study to show that dogs who detect emotional distress will hurry to do something about it.

"Dogs have been by the side of humans for tens of thousands of years and they've learned to read our social cues," says Sanford. "Dog owners can tell that their dogs sense their feelings. Our findings reinforce that idea, and show that, like Lassie, dogs who know their people are in trouble might spring into action."

The results of these studies, like many others on the mental and emotional lives of dogs, just confirm for those of us who adore them that our canine companions are intelligent, sensitive, loving creatures. But it’s always nice to have documented research to validate what we already know!