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Dogs: a shoulder to cry on?

New research suggests that dogs do respond to human tears--but whether pets have actual empathy for human pain is less clear. In a study published in the journal Animal Cognition, researchers at the University of London found that dogs were more likely to approach a crying person than someone who was either humming or talking, and that they normally responded to weeping with submissive behaviors. The results are what you might expect if dogs understand our pain, the researchers wrote, but it's not actually proof that they do.

"The humming was designed to be a relatively novel behavior, which might be likely to pique the dogs' curiosity," explained study researcher and psychologist Deborah Custance. "The fact that the dogs differentiated between crying and humming indicates that their response to crying was not purely driven by curiosity. Rather, the crying carried greater emotional meaning for the dogs and provoked a stronger overall response than either humming or talking."

Of the 18 dogs in the study, 15 approached their owner or Mayer during crying fits, while only six approached during humming. That suggests that it's emotional content, not curiosity, that brings the dogs running. Likewise, the dogs always approached the crying person, never the quiet person, as one might expect if the dog was seeking (rather than trying to provide) comfort.

"The dogs approached whoever was crying regardless of their identity. Thus they were responding to the person's emotion, not their own needs, which is suggestive of empathic like comfort-offering behavior," Mayer said in a statement.

Of the 15 dogs that approached a crying owner or stranger, 13 did so with submissive body language, such as tucked tails and bowed heads, another behavior consistent with empathy (the other two were alert or playful). Still, the researchers aren't dog whisperers, and they can't prove conclusively what the dogs were thinking. It's possible that dogs learn to approach crying people because their owners give them affection when they do, the researchers wrote.

"We in no way claim that the present study provides definitive answers to the question of empathy in dogs," Mayer and Custance wrote. Nevertheless, they said, their experiment opens the door for more study of dogs' emotional lives, from whether different breeds respond to emotional owners differently to whether dogs understand the difference between laughter and tears.

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Title Annotation:SHORT TAKES
Publication:Dog Watch
Date:Aug 1, 2012
Words:385
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