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Reference Desk June 2012

UK Study Finds Dogs Demonstrate Empathy When Seeing Humans in Distress

    Holds true even when person is not the dog's owner

    LONDON, United Kingdom, June 7, 2012—Research from Goldsmiths, University of London suggests domestic dogs express empathic behavior when confronted with humans in distress.

    Dr. Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer, both from the Department of Psychology, studied whether domestic dogs could identify and respond to emotional states in humans. Eighteen pet dogs, spanning a range of ages and breeds, were exposed to four separate 20-second experimental conditions in which either the dog's owner or an unfamiliar person pretended to cry, hummed in an odd manner, or carried out a casual conversation.

    The dogs demonstrated behaviors consistent with an expression of empathic concern. Significantly more dogs looked at, approached, and touched the humans as they were crying, as opposed to humming, and no dogs responded during talking. The majority of dogs in the study responded to the crying person in a submissive manner consistent with empathic concern and comfort-offering.

    "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," explained Dr. Custance. "Rather, the crying carried greater emotional meaning for the dogs and provoked a stronger overall response than either humming or talking."

    The study also found that the dogs responded to the person who was crying regardless of whether he or she was their owner or the unfamiliar person: "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 Mayer. "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."

    The full paper has been published by SpringerLink and can be viewed here.

    The paper is also available at Goldsmiths Research Online here.

    Source: Goldsmiths, University of London

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