Dogs make great companions; their childlike optimism is almost infectious. Many dog owners have even reported that their pets show signs of sympathy when they’re sad. But is this really empathy or are our emotions “infecting” them? When dogs encounter their owner crying they may display submissive and gentle actions like nuzzling and licking the person. They may even lay their head in the person’s lap. But is this an obvious sign that our four-legged friend are trying to comfort us?
Experts say that a dog’s mental capabilities are similar to that of a two or three year-old human child. Data has shown that children this age are just beginning to develop their sense of empathy and that clear signs of it are not shown until they’re four years-old. This has led some to believe that instead of sympathy our dogs are participating in emotional contagion, a subconscious process in which an individual’s emotions rubs off on others.
So do our four-legged friend really try to comfort us when we’re sad or are they mimicking our behavior?
A recent study conducted by the University of London attempted to answer this question. They used 18 dogs to see if they would respond to crying with “empathetic behaviors.” The owners and one of the researchers would sit and take turns pretending to cry. They found that 15 out of 18 dogs approached the crying person. Interestingly enough, it didn’t seem to matter if the person was their owner or a complete stranger (the researcher).
In the past there have been skeptics who believed that dogs were not approaching humans out of sympathy, but rather curiosity. So in the same study the owners and the researcher took turns humming to see if the dogs would approach them in the same way they approached crying humans. They found that the dogs hardly responded.
Since we can’t read our dog’s mind we may not ever know if they are sympathizing with us. However, researchers Karine Silva and Liliana Sousa give us hope. They believe that because dogs are descendants of highly social wolves and have spent the past 15,000 years being domesticated by humans, it’s very likely that when Spot brings you his favorite toy when you’re crying he truly wants you to feel better.