Dog owners and psychologists agree that dogs are capable of expressing empathy, and maybe this new evidence, from Goldsmiths, University of London, really does prove that dogs can be man’s best friend.
Dr Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer, researchers from Goldsmiths, studied the behaviour of eighteen pet dogs and found evidence that dogs are capable of expressing empathy towards humans.
When confronted with either their owner, or an unfamiliar person who was pretending to cry, humming, or carrying out a casual conversation the study showedthat dogs can tell the difference.
Significantly more dogs looked at, approached and touched a person who was crying rather than humming, and no dogs responded during casual talking. The majority of dogs showed signs of emphatic concern and comfort-offering when a person was crying.
Dr Custance explained: “The fact that the dogs differentiated between crying and humming indicates that their response to crying was not purely driven by curiosity. Rather, the crying carried greater emotional meaning for the dogs and provoked a stronger overall response than either humming or talking.”
Mayer added: “the dogs approached whoever was crying regardless of their identity. They were responding to the person’s emotion, not their own needs, which is suggestive of empathic-like comfort-offering behaviour.”
Dog walkers did not find this evidence very suprising. Elaine Eldridge in Hilly Fields Park, in Lewisham, said of her dog Harry: ‘He can definitely pick up on anxiety, he’s understanding and won’t bark if I’m upset”.
Phoebe Alan and Greta King also felt their dogs were capable of empathy. Greta said: “I had an argument with my boyfriend the other day and my dog kept pushing him away and came and put his head on my lap”.
Paul Basford was also sure that his dog Sid can feel empathy and offer comfort: “if you spend a considerable amount of time with pets they can understand body language, and they can read emotions that we unconsciously communicate with physical signs. My partner was recently a bit tearful, and the dog appeared from no where and nuzzled her leg”.