Pet owners are always happy to share a memory about the time their dog responded to their distress by coming to them or trying to get their attention. But those seemed to just be stories, until new research in the journal Learning & Behavior found that dogs really do feel empathy toward their owners.
According to Ripon College psychology professor Julia Meyers-Manor, the research was inspired by her earlier work on empathy in rats.
"One of the challenges we face when we're trying to study empathy is that the idea behind empathy is you are recognizing the emotional states of another individual and responding to it," she told VOA.
The problem is you can't tell why a rat would help another rodent. For example, it might help to free a trapped friend because the other rat is stressed, or the first rat might be just lonely or bored.
"I can't make rats have an emotional state" for an experiment, said Meyers-Manor, "but I can ask humans to adopt an emotional state."
To help researchers find out if dogs recognize and react to others' feelings, they asked humans to mimic behaviors that reflect different feelings.
Her lead study author, Emily Sanford of Johns Hopkins University, added, "People tend to think that dogs really care about their emotions, but we were interested in seeing if there was any scientific evidence to back that up."
The researchers tested dogs' prosocial reaction, or their willingness to help another, in a simple door-opening task. The owner sat in a small room with a clear door that the pups could easily push open. The owner was instructed to either pretend to cry or hum a tune. The dog was released into the adjacent room and videotaped to see whether it would push open the door to check on its owner.
When the researchers looked at which condition led dogs to open the door, Meyers-Manor said, "we found it was about equal between the dogs in the distressed, the crying condition, and in the dogs in the humming condition." In other words, most of the dogs often opened the door regardless of what their owner was doing.
The real difference between the crying and humming conditions was seen in the amount of time it took for the dogs to act. The dogs whose owners appeared to be crying were much faster to check on them than those whose owners were humming. The speed of the dogs' response was also predicted based on their bond with their owners.
"There's some research that says that when dogs are faced with a task they can't solve, that they will direct their attention more to an owner whom they have a close bond with," said Meyers-Manor. So they gave the dogs what's called "the impossible task," which places them in a room with both their owner and a stranger. They are shown an inaccessible treat and the researchers then time how long the dogs looked at their owner for help compared with the time it took to turn to the stranger.
Sanford said this was where individual differences appeared among dogs in the crying condition. "We actually found that dogs that gazed at their owners longer during the impossible task were faster to open the door during the prosocial helping task."
A second way to predict how quickly a dog would open the door, if at all, was based on stress levels. The researchers collected physiological data and watched the dogs for signs of stress during the main task. Dogs who showed lots of stress behaviors like whining or excessive panting were less likely to push open the door.
"The dogs who opened [the door] were actually the dogs who are the most calm and collected," said Meyers-Manor. "The dogs who were more distressed shut down. They showed lots of distress behaviors, but they couldn't seem to get past that distress to open the door."
About half of the dogs in this experiment were nationally certified therapy dogs. Although there was some sense that these trained pooches might respond more quickly than their untrained counterparts, this wasn't borne out in the data.
"So certainly if you ask the therapy dog owners, I'm sure they would say, yes, their dogs are more empathetic than the average. But that's not what our research says," Meyers-Manor said.
James Serpell, director of the Center for Interaction of Animals and Society, agreed that therapy dogs aren't necessarily more empathetic. "They don't necessarily need to be any more friendly or empathic than any pet dog," he told VOA. "They just need to not be aggressive or react violently when someone drops a crutch or something next to them."
Whether they're certified or not, this research demonstrates that our dogs do recognize our emotional states and respond to them.
As Sanford put it, "Your pet dogs are part of your family and they do feel feelings towards you. And if you are talking to them, they might not necessarily understand all the words that you're saying, but they certainly understand the emotions behind them."