“How do dogs respond when humans suddenly begin to cry for no readily apparent reason,” asks the Animal Cognition journal study by Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer of Goldsmiths College in London:
“It has been found that when typically-developing human infants are faced with suddenly crying individuals, they will often hug, pat, make appropriate verbal utterances (e.g., “there, there”, “it’s okay”), offer toys, and sometimes recruit assistance. The behavior of dogs under similar circumstances is harder to interpret. Dogs can whine, nuzzle, lick, lay their head in the person’s lap or fetch toys.
Yet, such behavior could be an expression of contagious distress and egoistic comfort-seeking rather than empathically motivated comfort-offering. Alternatively, such behavior could be motivated by curiosity. Hence, the primary challenge in investigating possible empathy in dogs is devising an experimental procedure that can elucidate the distinction between curiosity, egoistic attention- or comfort-seeking and expressions of genuine empathic concern,” says the study.
So, the researchers lined up 18 dogs, most of them mutts, evenly split between male and females. “All were household pets with no specialist training beyond basic obedience,” says the study.
None of the dogs knew Mayer, who came to their living room to play the part of a stranger, one who would burst into tears in front of the dog.
So what happened? In the study, both Mayer and the dog’s owner alternately cried and hummed “Mary Had A Little Lamb”, for 20 seconds in front of the dogs. Similar experiments have shown infants expressing empathy towards strangers under these conditions.
Three observers were asked to score films of the dog’s reactions to the crying, humming and talking by Mayer and the owners. “Four emotional states in dogs were considered: submissive, calm, playful and alert,” says the study.
Overall, 15 of the 18 dogs approached a crying stranger or owner, with 13 of them displaying submissive or calm behavior. “Dogs directed significantly more person-oriented behaviors toward the person crying than the silent companion,” finds the study. “It was found that a much higher proportion of the sample of dogs that approached during crying did so in a submissive manner than one would expect,” statistically speaking.
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