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Do dogs have empathy?

The most adorable video to have graced the internet in a long time demonstrates once again how awesome dogs are. It shows a remorseful puppy, after taking one of his infant owner’s precious possessions, showering a crying baby with mounds of her favorite toys. The pup’s desire for atonement illustrates his high level of attunement with his human family. But the nature of his motivation is unsure. Is it empathy? Punishment avoidance? Or just annoyance at the baby’s cries?

In a recent study, a stranger, a dog owner and his dog were placed in a room to assess canine empathy. The stranger and dog owner took turns humming and fake crying in order for the researchers to study the dog’s reaction to the neutral sound (humming)versus the expression of distress (fake crying) in a familiar face (owner) versus a someone new (stranger). The study found that the dogs tended to approach a person who was “sad” more than a person humming, regardless of familiarity. In other words, the dogs appeared to console both strangers and owners, if they felt that the person in question wanted support. While these results are easily interpreted as evidence for canine empathy, scientists differ in their conclusions of the study. While some, perhaps dog loving, researchers are certain that dogs are indeed capable of empathy, skeptics believe that what human deem empathy is simply reflexes to the sound of human cries. Here are two points of division for these opposing camps.

Empathy or emotional contagion? So the dogs approached the person in distress more often than the person humming, evidencing empathy for those who believe that the dog is trying to provide some emotional support. Yet non-believers argue that the dog is manifesting emotional contagion, and mimicking the emotional expression of humans around them. For this camp, the dogs in the study were just emulating the distress of the humans in the room and thus seeking solace for themselves by approaching them.

While both arguments are plausible, there is one caveat for the skeptics: the dogs approached both strangers and owners alike. If the dogs were in fact seeking solace, wouldn’t they exclusively approach their owners? Why approach the strangers, as they did, for emotional support?

Curiosity or genuine concern? Another argument put forth by skeptics is that the dogs in the study may have been curious at the sound of a person crying, prompting them to approach that person. Yet dogs did not approach their owners or the stranger when they were humming as often as they did when they were crying. Had they only been curious at the source or nature of sounds, wouldn’t the dogs have approached crying and humming humans just as often?

Skeptics argue that what humans envision as empathy is only an expression of emotional contagion or curiosity, but recent finding would argue against those interpretations, concluding instead that dogs are in fact capable of empathy. From the gift bearing pup, to the self-sacrificing navy seal canine, dogs seem to respond to expressions of emotional duress with affection and care.

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