Do Dogs Feel Empathy?

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Many pet owners would agree that their dog tries to comfort them when they are feeling sad. For example, you might notice that your dog comes up to lick your face or starts whimpering when you are feeling down. Does this mean dogs feel empathy?

Empathy is defined as the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, understand and take on that person’s emotions. It is generally agreed upon by canine psychologists that dogs have about the same cognitive abilities as a two – to three – year old human child.

While there is evidence that human children begin to develop empathy around the age of two, it is more likely that children develop real empathy around the age of four. Therefore, many scientists would agree that dogs are not actually showing empathy, but emotional contagion, a phenomenon where an individual has an emotional response to someone else’s emotions but doesn’t actually understand what they are feeling. These scientists would argue that dogs aren’t responding to our emotions to make us feel better, but to make themselves feel better.

Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer, two psychologists from Goldsmiths College in London, conducted a test to try and prove that dogs have empathy for their owners. In the experiment, the dog sat six feet away from their owner, and the owner would speak, hum in an unusual way, or cry.

If the dog’s reaction was based on empathy and not emotional contagion, their reaction would be to comfort their owner instead of themselves. This means dog would show behaviors such as licking, whining, and nuzzling directed at the human. The real test of empathy, however, came when the dog saw a stranger crying. If the dog were merely trying to comfort themselves, they would go to the owner for comfort instead of the stranger. However, the dogs would even approach the stranger when they were crying.

Another study showed that dogs know how to distinguish between positive and negative emotions in others. In the experiment, three types of sounds were played over the loudspeakers: The sounds of inanimate objects, emotional sounds (such as dogs playing and barking,) and non-emotional sounds (like non-emotional talk or crickets.)

The study showed that dogs responded more frequently to emotional sounds than non-emotional ones. Additionally, the dogs were more likely to freeze when they heard negative emotional sounds, suggesting they know how to distinguish between positive and negative emotions.  Dogs also responded to human emotions the same way they responded to dog emotions, showing how emotional contagion occurs across species.

This behavior may be caused by their own feelings or past experiences; since dogs can’t verbally express their feelings, it’s difficult to determine the cause of their behavior. While dogs definitely show signs of emotional contagion, we may have bred them a step further to have actual empathy similar to that of a young child. As shown by the first experiment, dogs may also have sympathy, which is a desire to comfort those who are in distress.