Does your dog comfort you when you are sad? A new study suggests that dogs act in an empathetic way when faced with a crying person. The study, done by researchers at Goldsmiths University of London, modified a test usually used to measure empathy in infants.
The dogs were comfortably settled in their own homes and were exposed to either a stranger or their owner performing one of three acts: talking normally, crying, or humming in a strange way. In a majority of cases, the dog approached the crying person and licked or nuzzled them. There was no significant difference in the behaviour when the crying person was a stranger or their loving owner. Crucially, the dogs went to the crying stranger, rather than their owner, which researchers say indicates that their response was not motivated by their own distress or a need for self-comfort. Most dogs did not approach the humming person, indicating that it was not simply curiosity that attracted them.
Whether dogs innately feel empathy, or if owners unintentionally train this behaviour by rewarding empathetic behaviour is something that needs further study. But the researchers point out that there is a wide body of evidence that suggests that centuries of living side by side with us has equipped dogs with brains designed to provide comfort to their human companions. You can download a draft of the paper from Goldsmiths Research Online here.