Dogs show empathic-like response to distress in humans

Custance, D., & Mayer, J. (2012). Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to distress in humans: An exploratory study. Animal cognition, 15 (5), 851-859.

This study explored empathic responses by domestic dogs towards humans. Dog’s behavioural responses were recorded in response to talking, humming and crying humans. The resulting behaviours were used to try and identify whether dogs show an empathic response to distressed humans.

Behavioural and emotional responses of dogs to crying humans

The behaviour of 18 dogs was recorded in response to a crying, humming or talking human. Dogs experienced both a stranger and their owner crying and humming for 20 seconds separately, split up by two minutes of the people having a conversation. Significantly more dogs approached humans during the crying condition compared to humming, and none approached during talking. Furthermore, dogs directed significantly more person orientated behaviour towards the crying person, even when this person was not their owner. This indicates that the dogs were not just comfort seeking, as it was hypothesised that they would have approached their owners, a known source of comfort. Out of the 15 dogs that approached during crying, 13 did so in a submissive manner. The fact that the dogs differentiated between crying and humming indicates that they were not just curious. The authors suggest that crying caused a greater emotional response in the dogs than humming or talking.

Although the majority of dogs responded to a crying human in a manner consistent with empathic concern, cognitive empathy would require the dogs to exhibit some understanding of the mental perspective of the crying human. As a result the authors conclude that this study does not conclusively show that the dogs understood the mental perspective of the crying humans, a prerequisite for empathic concern. This study does however set a direction for future study. The authors suggest that future research could explore dog’s responses to a variety of emotional states expressed by humans for example laughing.

World Animal Protection’s view

We believe that this research demonstrates that dogs are effected by the behaviours and emotional states of humans. This study showed that dogs have a strong emotional reaction to humans when they cry, and findings like this should be considered by people who care for dogs.