Do Dogs Feel Empathy?

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Dogs can do just about anything, so why would we doubt they can feel empathy? Studies show they are emotive creatures that read our facial expressions and emotional vibes. They go to work as Emotional Support Dogs, helping people who suffer from anxiety and depression, but still, we keep asking the same questions. How much do dogs feel?  

Empathy is the ability to sense another person’s feelings and literally take them on board. Say a friend tells you they are about to lose their job - you immediately feel empathy as you are bonded to this friend. You may not be able to stop the process from happening, but you can offer your support and compassion as you feel her fears and concerns. Can our fur-pups empathize with us? Let’s go and find out!

Signs Your Dog is Showing Empathy

It’s late and you’re watching your favorite TV show when the phone rings. The news is not good, so you start to feel sad. Staring blankly at the screen, you feel a soothing presence. You turn to see Pebbles, your Bichon princess, lying beside you on the sofa. She whimpers softly and puts her head in your lap. You stroke her furry, little head as the tears begin to flow.

Is Pebbles sharing her pet-mom's emotion and empathizing? Some say this is impossible, how can a mutt that herds sheep have human feelings? Many feel dogs are not capable of such human traits.

News Flash - dogs are incredibly emotive and, like the famous TV Lassie dog that was always there with a raised paw, our Boxers, German Shepherds, and Pugs have animated feelings.

However, the raging argument about how they can empathize is unresolved, as some experts hark back to the idea that dogs have the consciousness of a toddler, so, therefore, have not evolved to feel empathy or compassion. Observers of young children have another point of view, with the belief that babies naturally cry in the nursery as a form of empathy for the other babies, and by the time they hit the terrible twos, they can genuinely empathize with their parents and other kids.

Dogs are quick learners who mimic our facial expressions and sense our emotions. Like kids, they are also able to empathize with each other. "Healthy Pets" shares the news of a study carried out in an Italian dog park where it was observed pooches mimicked each other’s actions. If a dog play-bowed, another would copy. 

Next time you’re in the park, check out how the dogs that know each other communicate. You may never have noticed how your trusty Lab mimics some of his doggy pals. Sure, they all wag their tails, but watch how one perks his ears up and the rest follow. 

Body Language

Here are signs your dog could be showing empathy:
  • Ears up
  • Paw raised
  • Drooling
  • Wag tail
  • Whimpering
  • Head tilting
  • Barking

Other Signs

A few more signs that indicate empathy are:
  • Offering Comfort
  • Whimpering When Owner Cries
  • Copying Other Dogs

History of Empathy in Dogs

The legendary grey wolf gave birth to the family dog and may have been hunted to extinction by early man. Your Cavalier-King Charles, Yorkshire Terrier, and standard Poodle are all products of man's curiosity with genetics. Each country created a unique breed of dog with a nationalistic tag and spawned comical spins offs, referred to as designer dogs like Schnoodles, Puggles, and Jack-A-Bees.

All these dogs share a direct lineage to the wolf, who handed down some honorable, emotive traits.

The author of “Beyond Words,” reinforces the theory that wolves can show kindness and feel love. An alpha male in Yellow Stone Park was observed playing with wolfy pups and it appeared the older, wiser wolf let them win. This showed a power to reason, as he purposely allowed the pups to think they had beaten him in a playful fight. 

Another shining example of kindness was when he fought a love rival and let them live. This caring, alpha male showed empathy when he took a wolf-pup rejected by the pack under his wing. The runt of the litter is often left to die, but this kind-hearted wolf chose to empathize and care for the pup. These ancestral virtues are still strong in our domesticated dogs, that are now part of the human pack.

If it is true we evolved from apes, our concept of empathy has been paid forward. This is the same for dogs who evolved from wolves and found an empathic understanding with humans.

Nadia Kohts, a Russian Zoo psychologist, reflects on her work with apes and how if she pretended to cry, a chimpanzee named Joni would run to console her and tenderly take her chin in his palm. A study was carried out to see if children and household pets would react the same way. Parents were instructed to pretend to cry and it was apparent the family pets were visibly distressed, as some lay their head in their owner's lap.

Do Scientists Think Dogs Can Feel Empathy?

Dogs are a hot topic in the science community, with studies revealing our dog-sters are a lot more complex than previously thought.

Pet owners already know their masterful Mastiff is capable of great emotion who is able to listen and empathize. The world at large relies on cold hard facts, not assumptions, so recent studies implying dogs can show empathy is a step toward changing the way people think.

Scientists have often generated a kind of Dr Spock, non-emotive approach to testing animals for their emotional responses, generally resulting in an inconclusive result. "We can neither confirm nor deny dogs are capable of empathy", is the classic Science stance.

When it comes to understanding if a dog feels your emotional pain, you only have to watch how they react. The University of London conducted an experiment to see if dogs could relate to human emotions. Those involved were asked to hum, cry, or engage in conversation. The dogs were mainly interested in the people crying, showing an ability to empathize with their human pack. The dogs appeared to feel empathy for both their owners and the complete strangers taking part.

This is great news for animal welfare groups, working to toughen up laws that protect our dogs from cruelty!

Training Dogs to Be Empathetic

You can help your dog become your very own emotional therapy pooch with a little, focused training. Be sure you have the basic commands down first before you attempt any of these more advanced tasks.

The first phase is teaching your dog Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT). Your precious pup can becomes your personal masseur, learning how to ease anxiety and deter self-harming issues. Dogs place their body pressure on your chest, abdomen or parts of the body you might want to harm. It’s important the size and weight of your dog suits your body size and weight. The idea is to feel soothed by your calming canine.

To get your dog on the sofa, say “Paws Up,” with treats as a reward. Once you have your new pooch on the sofa, you want to teach him the “Paws Off” command. When Robi is getting up and off the sofa without any help, praise him for a job well done.

The next step is to get him to lie on you. This part can often take time. You want your dog to lie with his paws on your shoulders and head close to yours. Using the down command will put pressure on your chest - a proven way to calm people having an anxiety attack.

If we can train woofers to be emotional support dogs, it’s probable they can feel empathy.

How to React When Your Dog Shows You Empathy

  • If he puts his paw on you, gently touch it in appreciation.
  • Stroke your pup's furry head if he lays it in your lap.
  • You may feel emotional knowing your feelings are understood.
  • Feel privileged to have such a caring companion.

We Want to Hear How Your Pooch Shows Empathy!