A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

When You Feel Blue, Does Fido Too?

Dog Empathy

When you’re feeling down in the dumps, does your pooch want to comfort you? If so, does she really know what’s going on with you, or is something else going on? Enquiring minds want to know.

Some new research suggests that dogs do indeed respond specifically when they can see that you’re upset. But it’s not a sure thing that the response is an empathic one.[readon]

The new study, from scientists at the University of London, found that dogs were more likely to approach someone who was crying than someone who was humming or talking, and that they would tend to respond with submissive behavior – like perhaps lying down and rolling onto their back.

It’s well known that dogs are experts at picking up on cues they observe in our human behavior, but it’s less certain that they’re truly empathic. People with pets at home might say it’s totally obvious, but a research project is designed to prove the point rather than accept the obvious. And while there are great stories of dogs calling 911 when someone has a heart attack, there are equally stories of dogs taking no notice whatever. (Those don’t make the news so much!)

The new study observed what dogs did in their own homes when a member of the research team visited the home and, together with the dog’s guardian, either talked, hummed or made crying sounds. Of the 18 dogs in the study, 15 approached their person or the researcher during crying fits, while only six approached during humming.

This supports the idea that it’s emotional content, not curiosity, that brings the dogs to their person’s side when they’re upset. Further, the dogs always approached the crying person, never the one who was keeping quiet at that time. That suggests that the dog dog understands that their person needs comforting, and not that the dog is upset or frightened by the person crying (in which case they might go to the quiet person and look for comfort themselves.

It’s still possible that, rather than being empathic, dogs have learned that they get more attention, hugs and affection from someone who’s upset. “We in no way claim that the present study provides definitive answers to the question of empathy in dogs,” the researchers wrote. Instead, they say that their work opens the door for more research on how dogs respond to different kinds of display of emotions.

The full study can be found here.

What do you say? Does your dog comfort you when you’re upset? And how do you know that this is a display of empathy rather than simply the awareness that this a good moment to get some extra affection from you? Let me know in a comment or on Facebook.