Scientific research has proven that dogs are compassionate beings who overcome obstacles to help their human owners.
Humans have domesticated dogs for thousands of years and the bonding between humans and their pet dogs is a fine example of a strong and emotive relationship. Proud dog owners around the world have always felt and often discussed with their friends and family at some point on how they sense and feel that their canine companions are filled with empathy and compassion especially during the times when the owners are themselves upset and distraught. Dogs are perceived to not only love their owners but dogs also consider these humans as their affectionate family who provides them shelter and protection. Dogs have been labelled as ‘Man’s best friend’ for as long as literature has existed. Such anecdotes about dog’s particular loyalty, affection and bonding with humans have been popularised in every medium be its books, poetry or feature films. Despite this overwhelming understanding about how good the relationship between a human and his pet dog is, scientific studies with mixed outcomes have been produced on this area so far.
Dogs are compassionate creatures
Researchers from John Hopkins University have analysed in their recent study published in Springer’s Learning and Behaviour that dogs are indeed man’s best friend and they are highly compassionate creatures with underrated social awareness and they rush to comfort their owners when they realise that their human owners are in distress. Researchers conducted several experiments to understand the levels of empathy which dogs show towards their owners. In one out of many experiments, a set of 34 dog owners and their dogs of different sizes and breeds were gathered and the owners were asked to either cry or hum a song. It was done one at a time for each pair of dog and dog owner while both sitting across in different rooms with a transparent closed glass door in between supported only by three magnets to enable ease of opening. Researchers carefully judged the dog’s behavioural reaction and also their heart rate (physiological) by taking measurements on a heart rate monitor. It was seen that when their owners ‘cried’ or yelled “help” and dogs heard these distress calls, they opened the door three times faster to come in and offer comfort and aid and essentially “rescue” their human owners. This is in stark comparison to when the owners were only humming a song and appeared to be happy. Looking at the detailed observations recorded, dogs responded within an average of 24.43 seconds when their owners pretended to be distressed compared to an average response of 95.89 seconds when owners appeared happy while humming children rhymes. This method is adapted from the ‘trapped other’ paradigm which has been used in many studies involving rats.
Its interesting to discuss why would dogs still open the door when the owners were only humming and there was no sign of trouble. This shows that dog’s behaviour was not just empathy based but also suggested their need for social contact and also bit of curiosity of what lies across the door. Also, those dogs who showed a much faster response in opening the door had lower stress levels themselves. The levels of stress were noted by determining a line of progress through making baseline measurements. This is an understandable and well-established psychological observation that dogs will have to overcome their own distress in order to take an action (here, opening the door). This means that dogs suppress their own feelings and act on empathy instead by focusing on their human owners. Such is the case also seen with children and sometimes adults when they have to overcome their own overwhelming personal stress to be able to offer help to someone. On the other hand, the dogs who did not open the door at all displayed clear signs of distress in them like panting or pacing which showed their anxiety towards the situation involving someone they truly love. Researchers emphasise that this is normal behaviour and not at all worrisome since dogs, just like humans, can display varied degrees of compassion at one point or another. In another experiment, researchers analysed the gazes of dogs to their owners to learn more about the relationship.
In the experiments conducted, 16 out of the 34 dogs were trained therapy dogs and registered “service dogs”. However, unexpectedly, all dogs performed in a similar way irrespective of whether they were service dogs or not, or even the age or their breed did not matter. This means that all dogs exhibit similar human-animal bonding traits, just that therapy dogs have acquired more skills when they register as service dogs and these skills account for obedience rather than the emotional state. This result has strong implications on the criterion used to choose and train service therapy dogs. Specialists can judge which traits are most important to make therapeutic improvements in designing selection protocols.
This study shows high sensitivity of canines to the sentiments and feelings of humans as they are seen to strongly perceive change in emotional state of humans. Such learnings advance our understanding of canine empathy and range of cross-species behaviour in the general context. It would be interesting to expand the scope of this work to do further studies on other pets like cats, rabbits or parrots. Trying to understand how dogs think and react can provide us with a starting point to comprehend how empathy and compassion evolve even in humans which make them act empathetically in difficult situations. It can help us to investigate the extent of compassionate response and also improve our understanding of the shared evolutionary history of mammals – human and dogs.
Emily M. Sanford, Emma R. Burt and Julia E. Meyers-Manor 2018, ‘Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs’, Learning & Behavior, DOI: https://doi.org/10.3758/s13420-018-0332-3