Sniffle or sigh within earshot of your dog. Nine times out of 10, the ears flick and a worried glance comes your way. Sob, and within seconds comes a nuzzle, a snuggle, a caring gaze, a comforting paw on your shoulder or knee.
Our dogs feel our pain. But according to a new study released last week, dogs feel the pain not merely of their owners but of all human beings — because thousands of years of domestication have wired them to do so.
University of London psychology researchers Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer created an experiment in which 18 pet dogs, spanning a range of ages and breeds, were exposed to four separate situations in which for 20 continuous seconds “either the dog’s owner or an unfamiliar person pretended to cry, hummed in an odd manner, or carried out a casual conversation,” according to a University of London press release.
These sessions were filmed, and the footage was studied by the research team.
Many more of the dogs looked at, approached, and touched the humans who cried than did so to the humans who hummed. None of the dogs responded when the humans carried out casual conversations.
“The humming was designed to be a relatively novel behavior, 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,” Custance explained. “Rather, the crying carried greater emotional meaning for the dogs and provoked a stronger overall response than either humming or talking.”
The researchers found it particularly significant that the dogs responded to crying people regardless of whether those people were their owners or strangers. According to the Daily Mail, “the youngest dog in the experiment was an 8-month-old yellow Labrador which was absorbed in chasing its tail until someone pretended to cry, and then it rushed up and put its paws on her shoulder.”
“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,” Mayer said. “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.”
According to the Daily Mail, Mayer described this as “relatively sophisticated behavior which puts dogs on a par with toddlers, who will try to comfort someone in distress by hugging them or giving them a toy.”
Upon hearing strangers cry, the dogs were given the option of approaching their owners or the crying strangers. They approached the crying strangers — sniffing, nuzzling, and licking the strangers, according to Mayer and Custance. While this behavior gives every appearance of empathy and concern, the researchers warn that it could also be “interpreted as emotional contagion coupled with a previous learning history in which they have been rewarded for approaching distressed human companions.”
In other words: It’s possible that on past occasions when you wept, your dog soothed you. Grateful for this comfort, you patted your dog and offered up some cookies and a walk. Henceforth, to your dog, the sound of sorrow signifies cookies and a walk.
But it feels so much better to us to believe that they care, yes?
Top photo credit: Hugging Tightly by Shutterstock.com.