New Study Shows Dogs Feel – and Respond to – Our Pain

Scientists in England have new evidence indicating that dogs not only show empathy when their owners are in distress, but are even drawn to comfort people they don’t know well.

Dr. Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer, of Goldsmiths, University of London, devised an experiment where 18 pet dogs of varying ages and breeds were put in the room with people (including not just their owners, but also strangers) who modeled one of a few different scenarios: they either engaged in casual conversations, hummed to themselves, or pretended to cry.

For those carrying out normal conversation (the control group), none of the dogs responded. The press release from Goldsmiths explains the key behavior from the study:

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 it 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 Jennifer. “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.”   

This is just one more key illustration of the human-animal bond that differentiates dogs from nearly every other pet with whom we share our lives. The British study shows that in a very real way, dogs feel our pain.


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