Can dogs feel your pain? Has man’s best friend evolved to the point that he or she can respond to you or someone else if you cry? According to recent research, dogs actually do respond to a person who is crying and it doesn’t matter if the person crying is the dog’s owner or a complete stranger.
Researchers at the University of London figured out a way to examine whether domestic dogs could identify and respond to emotional states in humans. So they gathered 18 dogs – in a range of ages and breeds – and showed the dogs four separate 20-second experimental conditions in which either the dog’s owner or an unfamiliar person pretended to cry, hummed a tune in an strange way, or just carried out a casual conversation.
Yes, they really did this – silly as it is. I’d usually flag such research as a waste of time and money. But, we’re talking about our loveable pets here, so I’ll give this research project a pass.
Dogs Show Empathy
More dogs looked at, approached and touched the humans as they were crying as opposed to humming, and no dogs responded to those actors who were talking. A majority of dogs in the study responded to the crying person in a submissive manner consistent with empathic concern and offering comfort. I assume the researchers could establish what constituted empathic concern. If you like dogs you probably know what that means.
“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,” said the researchers. But “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 behavior.”
Or maybe the dogs like the taste of salty tears?