Researchers at the University of Porto in Portugal have suggested that the bond between dogs and their owners may be deeper than previously thought, and that dogs may share their owners’ emotions. When confronted with a human displaying strong feelings, dogs produce a similar emotional response.
Previous studies have found that dogs’ stress hormones rise and fall in direct relation to their owner’s and that dogs tend to yawn when they see people doing the same. Biomedical scientist Dr Karine Silva said: “Curiously, contagious yawning has been connected to higher levels of empathy in humans, with studies suggesting that it probably shares a developmental basis with self-awareness and perspective taking.”
Dr Silva claims that dogs even possess certain human-like social skills that chimpanzees, our closest relatives, do not. The animals’ response goes beyond simply mimicing their owners’ – a reaction known as ‘emotional contagion’. Dr Silva said: “A study showing that pets, namely dogs, behave as ‘upset’ as children when exposed to familiar people faking distress, strongly suggests ‘sympathetic concern. Also, it has been reported that untrained dogs may be sensitive to human emergencies and may act appropriately to summon help, which, if true, suggests empathic perspective taking.”
The researchers believe there are three main reasons why dogs may be able to empathise with humans. First, modern dogs originate from wolves, highly social animals who engage in cooperative activities and probably have some capacity for empathy towards other wolves. Second, as we have domesticated dogs, biological changes such as tameness may have synchronised their natural empathetic capacities with humans. Third, breed selection for increasingly difficult tasks such as herding animals or hunting may have led to more complex understanding of human emotion.
Crucially, the researchers conclude that evidence of the empathic abilities of dogs is of special importance for decisions about our obligations towards them: “Dogs have been increasingly involved with human activities and further studies are crucial if specific needs are to be met. For instance, it would be important to conduct rigorous tests on therapeutic dogs that seem to ‘take on’ the emotions of patients, needing massages and calming measures after the sessions.”
It is thought that dogs also feel empathty for other dogs and other animals.
- Silva K and de Sousa L 2011 ‘Canis empathicus’? A proposal on dogs’ capacity to empathize with humans. Biology Letters, doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0083.