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.