According to a paper published in the journal Animal Cognition, in an experiment conducted by the university, dogs approached people who appeared to be distressed more often than those who weren’t. “I think there is good reason to suspect dogs would be more sensitive to human emotion than other species,” author Deborah Custance told the Press Trust of India.
Goldsmiths University doctors used an experimental set up that was first used to investigate empathy in human infants. According to the Daily Mail, a diverse group of 18 dogs was individually exposed to three different scenarios: two people talking, a person “humming in an odd manner” to incite the dog’s curiosity, and a person crying or pretending to cry. The experiments were conducted both with the dog’s owner and with a stranger. Significantly more dogs approached the individual in distress and displayed submissive tendencies.
Surprisingly, the dogs approached the strangers as often as their owners, indicating that their empathy response doesn’t discriminate among familiar and unfamiliar people. The study’s authors suggest that the empathy response might have been bred into the canines after thousands of years of living in close proximity to humans.
“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,” Dr. Custance told the Daily Mail.
“If the dog’s approaches during the crying condition were motivated by self-oriented comfort-seeking, they would be more likely to approach their usual source of comfort, their owner, rather than the stranger,” Jennifer Mayer, the study’s co-author, said in a Goldsmiths College press release. “No such preference was found. 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.”