Dogs Really Do Empathize with Humans

Do dogs know how we are feeling?
Do dogs know how we are feeling?

Dogs may truly be man's best friend, according to a study that suggests canines empathize with humans more than other animals.

Researchers at the University of London Goldsmiths College found that dogs comforted people - both their owners and strangers - when the individual pretended to cry.

In the study, 18 dogs of different ages and breeds had four separate 20-second human encounters. The study's participants included the dogs' owners as well as strangers.

Also see: Why dogs yawn when we yawn

For one encounter, the person hummed in a weird way, so scientists Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer could see if an unusual behavior itself could trigger canine concern. During the other encounters, participants talked or pretended to cry.

When exposed to the crying person - owner or not - most of the dogs acted submissive and nuzzled or licked the individual, the canine equivalent of comforting.

Custance and Mayer think this behavior could have been bred into dogs. They say our canine companions have been rewarded so much over thousands of years for approaching distressed humans that the behavior could be hardwired into their brains.

"I think there is good reason to suspect dogs would be more sensitive to human emotion than other species," Custance told Discovery News. "We have domesticated dogs over a long period of time. We have selectively bred them to act as our companions. Thus, dogs that responded sensitively to our emotional cues may have been the individuals that we would be more likely to keep as pets and breed from."

Dogs' ability to empathize may also have a subconscious element, according to a study by the University of Porto in Portugal. Researchers found that dogs yawn even when they hear only the sound of a person yawning, providing strong evidence yet that dogs empathize with us.

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