Many people who live with multiple dogs have had the pleasure of experiencing two dogs who become great friends. Call the relationship what you will – bonded pair, social partners, housemates, doggy pals – I personally prefer friends, but hey, tomato/tomato, agreed? Regardless of what you label it, it is without question that dogs are highly social, that they bond with others in their social group, and that some dogs bond very strongly to each other.
The emotional lives of dogs: It is (finally) accepted by scientists that dogs, like many other species, express a wide range of basic emotions. These include, but may not be limited to, fear, anxiety, jealousy, pleasure, playfulness, and happiness. (I would also add joy and silliness to these, but then, I live with a Toller).
What about empathy? Seeing that dogs are highly social and that they bond closely to their companions, it is not a big jump to ask whether or not they are capable of feeling concern for others. At its most basic, empathy refers to the ability to share the emotions of another individual. However, there is debate over whether or not the expression of empathy must involve the capacity to take the perspective of the other, a level of cognition that requires at least a rudimentary “theory of mind”. One approach to resolving this debate has been to classify empathy into several types, each requiring different levels of cognitive complexity.
- Emotional contagion, at the lowest level, refers to simply being affected by and sharing another’s emotional state. This form of empathy has been found to exist in a wide variety of species, including dogs.
- The next step up, sympathetic concern is expressed through comforting behaviors. The subject not only feels the other’s emotions, but attempts to provide comfort to alleviate the other’s distress. This level of empathy as well has been demonstrated in a wide range of species. Chimpanzees, some species of birds, and dogs all have been shown to demonstrate comforting behaviors towards others in distress.
- At the peak of the cognitive scale is empathic perspective, which requires the capacity to understand and appraise a situation from the other individual’s perspective. An example of this is prosocial helping. a talent that dogs have indeed been found to be capable of when they are made aware of their owner’s goal. (We looked at this research in “Lend a Helping Paw“).
All about us: So, one might be inclined to stop here, seeing that there is certainly evidence of empathic responses in dogs. But herein lies the rub. All of this work has examined not if dogs respond empathically to other dogs, but rather, how dogs recognise and respond to the emotional state of humans. This is all very cool work, for sure, but it is rather odd seeing that all of the research with other species such as Chimpanzees, Bonobos, birds, and even elephants have examined empathic responses among con-specifics – members of their own species. Most of the results in those animals have also reported that individuals are much more likely to demonstrate empathy (at any level) for a close relative or a member of their social group than for an unfamiliar individual.
Do dogs care about their friends? Do we know anything about how dogs react to the distress of other dogs? If they do show empathy, will they react more dramatically to a known dog friend versus an unfamiliar dog? Recently, a group of researchers at the University of Vienna in Austria and at the Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest Hungary asked exactly these questions (1).
The Study: Sixteen pairs of dogs who had lived together in the same home for at least one year were included in the study. Within each pair, one dog was randomly assigned to be the subject and the other to be the “distressed” partner. The partner’s stress whine was pre-recorded and used during the experiment. Each subject dog was studied under three conditions, spaced apart by 2-week intervals: (1) the whine of their (absent) household partner; (2) the whine of an unfamiliar dog; and (3) a recording of computer-generated sounds with a cadence and frequency similar to dog whines (the control). The subject dog’s physiological response (heart rate and salivary cortisol levels) and behavioral response (stress signals) were recorded before and after listening to the recorded sounds, which came from behind an opaque screen. At the end of each period, the partner dog was immediately brought into the room, apparently from behind the screen (the reunion phase) and the subject dog’s behavior upon seeing his or her housemate was also recorded. (You can imagine how this would feel…..”Dude! What were they doing to you back there??!!!”)
Results: The dogs in this study definitely reacted to the distress calls of another dog. Upon hearing a distressed dog calling, the dogs spent significantly more time gazing towards the source of the cries and moving closer to the source than they did when exposed to the non-dog control sounds. This should not be surprising to anyone who lives with more than one dog, certainly. This study also provided a few interesting nuances regarding how dogs express their concern for other dogs:
- Dogs care about other dogs: The dogs expressed more anxiety and stress behaviors when they listened to the recorded cries of their housemate or an unfamiliar dog compared to when they were listening to the control sounds.
- Expressing their concern: When dogs were reunited with their partners, they spent more time with their friend and showed more affiliative (loving) behaviors towards their partner after having heard a recording of the partner’s whine compared to when they had heard an unfamiliar whine or the control sounds.
- Feeling stressed: Hearing their friend whining also caused dogs’ salivary cortisol levels to remain elevated during the testing conditions, suggesting that physiological stress was elevated when compared with the control condition.
Take Away for Dog Folks: This study, the first to directly measure dogs’ empathic response to other dogs, provides evidence that dogs are capable of the first level of empathy, emotional contagion. The dogs were clearly affected by and shared the distressed emotional state of a dog who they could hear but not see. The study also showed us that dogs recognize and respond to the distress of a friend more intensely than they do to the distress of a dog who they do not know and that they show strong affiliative behaviors towards their friend upon being reunited. These behaviors suggest that not only do dogs recognize the vocalizations of their friends (which has been demonstrated in other studies) but that they express the second level of empathy – sympathetic concern.
Anecdotes about dogs who love each other and who express distress and concern for their friends abound. Personally, I too carry the belief that dogs, as highly social beings, care for and are concerned for the welfare of their canine buddies. Now we have a bit of research to support this, continuing to expand our understanding of who our dogs are and about what matters to them in their lives.
Cited Study: Quervel-Chaumette M, Faerber V, Farago T, Marshall-Pescini S, Range F. Investigating empathy-like responding to conspecifics’ distress in pet dogs. PLOS-One 2016; 11 (4):e0152920. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0152920.
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5 thoughts on “I Feel Your Pain”
Back in the early 2000s, I had an 11 year old Shep x Husky and a 10 year old GR. From 6 weeks when the GR came home with me, he was never without the Husky for even a day. In 2001, the Husky had ‘controlled’ Cushings, then developed prostate cancer. We had to travel across country suddenly because my mother became ill. The second week with my mom, the Husky made it clear to me that he was ready to pass on. So, I put the two dogs in my van, drove to a recommended vet, and took him in. The vet was great and the dog and I spent a few minutes saying goodbye, and I stayed with him until he was gone. Then I returned to the van. My GR was in a perfect ‘obedience’ sit staring at the vet building. He stared for about 5 minutes while I talked to him and patted him. Then he lay down absolutely flat. For the next 6 weeks, he would not get up unless I put his leash on and pulled. He ate, but only when hauled to his dish or served where he was. I was lucky enough to know a breeder who had an 8 month old GR pup, who hadn’t grown tall enough for show. When Jazz ‘the pup’ came in the door, he walked straight over to my older GR and lay down beside him… by afternoon all signs of mourning and loss were gone and the two of them were out in the backyard playing! I’m not sure about empathy, but there certainly was an intense show of loss and mourning.
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You write: “Sympathetic concern is expressed through comforting behaviors. The subject not only feels the other’s emotions, but attempts to provide comfort to alleviate the other’s distress.”
And: “These behaviors suggest that not only do dogs recognize the vocalizations of their friends … but that they express the second level of empathy – sympathetic concern.”
How do you know the dog isn’t providing comfort to alleviate his own feelings of distress? How do we know that a dog sees himself as a separate being from other dogs or as separate from his owners, or the family cat? If dogs don’t have a sense of self-and-other, they can’t have any of these cognitive abilities, including the intent to provide comfort to another dog or a human companion. And guess, what? If the dog doesn’t see himself as being separate, you would see the exact same results.
Don’t get me wrong. When a dog’s owner is depressed or sad, and the dog comes over and nuzzles her or cuddles up, it certainly appears as if the dog has this aspect of a theory of mind. But sussing out what’s really going on requires more than just looking at the dog’s body language, behavior, etc.
Anyway, that’s how I see it.
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Hi Lee, Thanks for your comment. This is a valid question and one that of course also applies to human expressions of concern or comfort, as well as to studies of non-human empathy and altruistic behavior. All of the studies that I have seen that examine altruistic behaviors address this and make attempts to tease out these differences (though as you correctly state, it is very difficult). For an excellent review of the literature see Frans de Waal’s 2008 article entitled “Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy”.
In the particular study that I review in this essay, while there are limitations (both in terms of the small number of subjects and some of the methodology), the authors note that the dog’s owner was always present during the testing. The fact that the dogs did not approach their owners for comfort, but instead always went to their dog partner, suggests that they were concerned with the dog more so than simply attempting to reduce their own stress (in which case, you would expect at least some to approach their owner and solicit comfort, which they did not do). Still, I agree completely that underlying motivations for altruistic behaviors are difficult to tease out – but I would also make the point that this is true as well for humans. Thanks for your thoughts – they are always a welcome addition to the blog! Linda