Many pet parents feel their dog can read their emotional state and respond accordingly, much like a human would, providing sympathy and comfort in times of sadness, and jumping for joy during happy times. Personally, I’ve had experiences with my dog being extra gentle around me when I wasn’t feeling well, being unusually energetic when I do my happy dance, and licking my tears when seeing me cry. I know, without a doubt, that my precious pooch empathizes with me. But, if I were to make that statement to a group of scientists or psychologists, it is more apt to start a debate rather than bring nods of agreement.
Do dogs experience empathy?
The problem is, empathy is a very complex emotion and the consensus is that the mind of a dog is quite similar to that of a two or three year old human, with scientists believing clear evidence of empathy in a human doesn’t appear until his fourth year. Many scientists suggest that a dog cannot be empathetic, but simply sniffing and pawing at a person who is acting in an unusual way out of mere curiosity.
Dogs often extend comforting gestures when we show signs of stress
A study was conducted a few years ago by two psychologists in London to determine whether or not dogs do indeed show empathy when a pet parent is in emotional distress. In the study, the pet parent sat six feet away from a stranger and engaged in several activities, with the pooch present. The two humans would take turns speaking, humming in an unusual fashion, and pretending to cry. The psychologist reasoned that if a dog was showing empathy, his behavior would focus primarliy on the person crying, resulting in attempts to comfort or help. It was anticipated that the dog would nuzzle, whine, lick, lay their head on the person’s lap, and offer similar comforting behaviors. If the dog is simply upset by his parent’s crying, it should go to that person to provide comfort. However, suppose the stranger cries. The dog will not be expected to comfort a stranger who does not have a bond with him, but rather would go to his own pet parent for comfort. The psychologists found the dog actually approached and tried to comfort not only his own parent when crying, but also the stranger, offering what appeared to be sympathy and support much in the way humans display empathy for one another.
Dogs pick up on signs of human discomfort and stress
More recently, two Psychologists from New Zealand furthered research on the subject by studying whether or not dogs empathize specifically with stress and the findings were nothing short of amazing. They exposed 74 people and 75 dogs of varying breeds to one of three different conditions in order to check the response of both humans and dogs to the sounds produced by infants, all while being filmed. The first group heard the distressing sound of a crying baby; the second an infant babbling; and the third a sample of computer-generated white noise. After listening to the sounds for 13 minutes, saliva samples were taken from the people and the dogs in order to test their cortisol levels, as it is believed the presence of cortisol – a.k.a. “the stress hormone” – might be an indication of empathy for the crying baby.
While neither the people nor the dogs showed a change in cortisol levels in response to the sound of the baby babbling or the white noise, the outcome was different when it came to the sound of the baby crying. The dogs showed alertness, followed by signs of stress, and there was a sharp increase in the concentration of cortisol in their bodies. The same held true for the people in the study. In other words, both the dogs and the people seemed to pick up the emotional distress of the crying baby, effecting their own emotional responses and behavior. In the video clips that support the study, the dogs become obviously upset when hearing the baby’s cries, showed submissive body signals, and sought comfort from their pet parent.
Bottom line: Your dog does care for you
So let's answer the question "Does my dog care about me?" Yes, he does care about you. Dog are pack animals, and is ultimately interested in the well being of his pack leader, because you're the most important resource he has. Many trainers and behaviorists will attest to the fact that our dogs pick up on our emotions - whether happy or sad. Whether the reactions from the dogs in the above study were true empathy or not, the findings serve as yet another example of the fact that dogs do pay attention to our feelings. Like we as pet parents needed scientific studies to tell us that! Next time you are visibly upset or feeling stressed, keep an eye on the behaviors of your furry best friend. He may be offering up the comfort you need!