15,000 years of experience tells humans that dogs ‘feel our pain.’ Now a new study suggests that the empathy is real.

Most dog owners will tell you that their dogs are able to "feel their pain" when they are emotionally upset. After all humans and dogs have had a long history together of around 15,000 years so there has been plenty of time to become attuned to each other. But until recently there has not been any scientific studies that have backed this up.

Researcher and psychologist Deborah Custance and her colleague, Jennifer Mayer, from the University of London published a study in the journal Animal Cognition. They ran a test with 18 pet dogs, of differing breeds first with their owners and then with strangers. The test involved either talking, pretending to cry, or humming. This separated out the dog’s responses as emotional content from just curiosity.

What they found was that more dogs would respond to a human when they thought they were crying than with just talking or humming. The dogs responded in a submissive manner consistent with empathic concern and trying to offer comfort. The dogs also responded to any human, not just their owner.

In Deborah Custance's own words she reported that: "The humming was designed to be a relatively novel behaviour, which might be likely to pique the dogs’ curiosity. The fact that the dogs differentiated between crying and humming indicates that their response to crying was not purely driven by curiosity.

Rather, the crying carried greater emotional meaning for the dogs and provoked a stronger overall response than either humming or talking. If the dogs’ approaches during the crying condition were motivated by self-oriented comfort-seeking, they would be more likely to approach their usual source of comfort, their owner, rather than the stranger.

No such preference was found. The dogs approached whoever was crying regardless of their identity. Thus they were responding to the person’s emotion, not their own needs, which is suggestive of empathic-like comfort-offering behaviour."

Custance does admit that this study was not conclusive proof that dogs are empathetic because she said that it is always possible that dogs learn to approach crying people because they receive affection when they do. However, researchers are beginning to look into dog’s brains using MRI scanners and empathy is one subject they want to study.

Responses to "Research shows that dogs show empathy to crying people"

  1. Thank you Drs. Custance and Mayer. I am tired of people telling me that my dogs are just pets. That they are not empathetic and cannot "feel". Their arrogance allows for the continued abuse of animals. Custance and Mayer's study will add to the growing data that shows humans are not the only being that can "feel" and "learn." First Coco the gorilla was taught how to sign, then we see videos of dogs, cats, squirrels, and even crows trying to protect their "friends" who had been hit by cars. Maybe humans can learn to be more empathetic towards animals and learn to share this ever so valuable planet that we all have to call home.

  2. Scientists needed to study this. Proof of very stupid, smart people, has been found, one more time.

  3. Ruth says:

    Coco is beside herself when I cry bless her. Thank you White Wolf _()_

  4. Who ever said that dogs don't have a soul, don't have a soul themselves. Every time I cried my dog will have been next to me cuddling up and licking my tears away and tried to nuzzle me to laugh. And every time I was sick he laid right next to me and refused to move, he even growled at my brother who was his master and he left him alone so he can be with me. He did the same thing when my brother or mother got sick .... with my mother he starved himself to force my mother to get up and eat.

  5. Jennifer1nAustralia says:

    My cat does the same staying close when I'm upset or sick. she was previously my mum's cat. She used to walk around the neighbourhood with her and also wait in a house at the bustop for her. If my mum was given a ride home she would have to walk around to the bustop to pick her up. My house was diaganol to the bus stop but she didn't go there . When my mum died she followed me home for the first time. On the day of the house auction she turned up in the middle of the auction. There were people everywhere on both sides of the road and some had dogs ..she walked straight across the front lawn and would have gone indoors except a child tried to scare her. i was on the opposite side of the road and ran across which meant the cat moved quickly away from the child and into a neighbours..

  6. Pete. says:

    I believe this is the case , I've owned 2 dogs both were so aware of my moods , be it happy , sad .
    Dogs are very very aware of expressions on peoples faces also I believe has been proven.

    Its also well known people with dogs and u think cats live on average 10 years longer they have an amazing calming effect and I miss my dog Louie very much it's to early for me to replace him so soon.
    Regards Pete.

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