Dogs Respond To Crying Humans; Seem To Empathize

Hoozapuppy

The animals that became domestic dogs speciated from the gray wolf about 15 millenia ago. Since then, our dogs have come to know us well.

Dr. Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer, of the Department of Psychology at the University of London, sought to discover how well in an experiment chronicled in the May 30th issue of the journal Animal Cognition. What they discovered is that dogs are overwhelmingly more likely to approach people who exhibit visual and audial signs of distress, such as crying, than people who are talking, humming, or being quiet. And when dogs approach weeping humans, they will tend to assume submissive, friendly, comforting postures.

From MSNBC.com:

"The humming was designed to be a relatively novel behavior, which might be likely to pique the dogs' curiosity," study researcher and psychologist Deborah Custance said in a statement. "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."

… The experiment took place in the [dog] owners' living rooms. Mayer would arrive and ignore the dog so that it would have little interest in her. Then she and the owner would take turns talking, fake-crying and humming.

Of the 18 dogs in the study, 15 approached their owner or Mayer during crying fits, while only six approached during humming. That suggests that it's emotional content, not curiosity, that brings the dogs running. Likewise, the dogs always approached the crying person, never the quiet person, as one might expect if the dog was seeking (rather than trying to provide) comfort.

"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," Mayer said in a statement.

Of the 15 dogs that approached a crying owner or stranger, 13 did so with submissive body language, such as tucked tails and bowed heads, another behavior consistent with empathy (the other two were alert or playful).

The study's authors are quick to point out that just because dogs appear to feel empathy with humans, it does not follow that they actually do.

Comments

  1. Paul R says

    Most anyone with a dog knows this. Dogs think that they’re responsible for people’s moods. When I yell out how stupid a client is, my dog disappears. And when I’m sad or sick, she stays really close.

    The dog pictured looks almost exactly like mine. Must be part or full Rhodesian ridgeback.

  2. Mark says

    And a cat would just urinate in your clean laundry basket if it saw you crying.Dogs are infinitely superior in intelligence and emotional response.

  3. mike128 says

    Both cats and dogs are loving creatures. Anyone who has a pet knows this – but scientists just love to research questions that we don’t really need statistical evidence for, dont they?

  4. RWG says

    The researchers should account for changes in odor emitted by people in emotional distress as well as the sounds and posture of a crying person. I have no doubt dogs are sensitive to our emotional states, but they may be using cues other than sound.

  5. Paul R says

    @RWG, I’d say it’s almost exclusively based on scent, given that dogs have unbelievable senses of smell—far stronger than their vision or hearing.

  6. Caliban says

    @RWG, since the people were play-acting crying for the purposes of the study their emotional state didn’t change and shouldn’t have caused any physical/hormonal changes that a dog might “scent.”

  7. Ric says

    I think it’s amazing that so few scientists appear to own dogs. If they did this wouldn’t be news. Don’t get me wrong: it’s fine to study this. I just don’t understand why it’s presented as an astonishing new discovery.

  8. Sean in Dallas says

    Come on now, RIC and MIKE128: you can’t assume scientists don’t own dogs because of this research.

    Over the last 50 years or so a lot of what was considered common sense has been debunked by studies that many would have dismissed as foolish to run.

    We’d still be throwing salt over our shoulders otherwise.

  9. Greg Thomas says

    I am disabled from chronic back pain and weird walking at times. My dogs know when its a bad day for me and lie down next to me. I have a special cat that lays down on the parts that are sore. Love them.

  10. GregV says

    @RWG and @Caliban: Your two points combined are pretty much what I was thinking.
    Were these people play-acting or were they actually sad. (Being asked to say “boo-hoo-hoo” might result in a very different real emotional state than, for example, if a participant was asked to “close your eyes and describe in detail the day your daughter died last month.”
    If these people were not emotionally distressed but, rather, play-acting sadness with sights and sounds familiar to humans, we could guess that the dog might be seeking out (or smelling) for other cues that we don’t tend to notice and might react differently to a real situation in which his human friend is sad.

  11. Bobby says

    God, I hate the assholes who denigrate animals and try to somehow make this study seem useless. Those people should not be allowed around other people, much less dogs and other pets.

  12. UFFDA says

    Whenever I tell my cat in a loving voice that she doesn’t know anything, that no one likes her and that if she can’t say nincompoop she is one she just looks at me in her sweet way and goes back to sleep. Isn’t that some kind of study? How about an award?

  13. Joey says

    Instead of saying: This research supports what dog owners have asserted for centuries that dogs sense their emotions and feel empathy for them.

    They end it by saying:
    The study’s authors are quick to point out that just because dogs appear to feel empathy with humans, it does not follow that they actually do.

    So if you are going to do research that proves nothing and therefore means nothing why do it? Science is suppose to prove things and since you will never be a dog you can never “prove” a dog has empathy. This is why science is being so discredited. Why so many people view it with suspicion. Everything must fit in its box or it is suspect.

  14. Mark says

    Ok, I was just trying to bring a little humor but that was a total fail. Sorry. I have had a few cats and they were incredible animals, but I now have 3 rescue dogs that are seriously responsive and incredibly intelligent, especially my border collie. All animals have value, how we treat them is a reflection of who we really are and I am sorry I said mean things about cats!

  15. Gregv says

    @Paul R: i don’t know what sadness and distress smell like (since I only have a human nose), but taking a wild stab at it, I would guess it might smell like cortisol, since humans emit that hormone when distressed.
    I’m not aware of any studies on whether actors’ hormones actually change by playing an emotion, but if they exist I’d be interested to know (and if they don’t, it might make a good masters thesis).

    I did a monologue once after which a drama teacher praised me for almost making him cry. But I feel very sure that inside of me the level of distress and hormonal secretions were nothing close to the physiological changes I would have felt if the sad events described in the monologue had been true.
    Maybe I WAS physiologically changing at least a little bit and a dog would have smelled that, but I don’t know how I’d know that.

  16. Caliban says

    Regarding whether the dogs used scent to know which person to approach, it depends on what you mean by “crying.” If they are drawn by the scent of tears, something in their chemical composition, then emotional state is irrelevant. But that seems unlikely. People cry for reasons unrelated to emotion all the time. Allergies, chopping onions, something in their eyes, etc. and dogs (in my experience) don’t come running.

    It also seems unlikely that the subjects were experiencing true emotional distress or upset, which *might* release a physical scent. The researcher and the dog owner took turns “crying” to see which one the dog approached, and that would seem to rule out real emotion instead of play acting. Even someone who can “cry convincingly” is acting; the emotions don’t match the calculated action.

    Yes dogs have an incredible sense of smell, but it’s not their only sense and they are no slouch in the hearing department: dog whistles, hearing a siren or car WAY before humans do, etc. So it seems to me the most likely answer is they respond to the sound and sight of a person crying instead of other sensory info.

    Just my 2 cents.

  17. mike says

    I agree with the posts about dogs taking their cues from scent.

    My rescue dog picked up on this shortly after coming to live with me. She will do everything in her power to wake me when my glucose levels drop. She hits me with a paw, then runs between the bedroom and the kitchen until I open the fridge and the bag of chocolate I keep for such emergencies.

    And of course, she receives a vet-approved treat for keeping her human safe.

  18. bbg372 says

    MIKE128, RIC, MATEOM, SAM, and WILLIAM:

    It may be a common observation that dogs demonstrate empathic behavior but it cannot be affirmed that it is so until it can be demonstrated.

    RWG and PAUL R:

    There is no evidence to suggest that humans can detect changes in mood by scent and by extension, no reason to believe that humans produce them.

    GREGV:

    An emotional state is only a perception in the mind of the one experiencing it. The ability to directly observe the operation of the mind of another outstanding, the only way to infer the emotional state of another is from behavioral clues, which would be relatively indistinguishable between one who is “truly” experiencing an emotional state and one who is only mimicking it.

    JOEY:

    People who view science with suspicion do so because like you, they do not understand how science works. “. . . science is being so discredited,” says the man using science to type a message on computer and send it electronically across a network to post it as a comment on a website that exists on a server all created with science.

    The level of scientific illiteracy reflected in these comments is embarrassing.

  19. GregV says

    “…the only way to infer the emotional state of another is from behavioral clues, which would be relatively indistinguishable between one who is “truly” experiencing an emotional state and one who is only mimicking it.”

    That may be true from your perspective, but you are not a dog (I assume).

    As I said, someone who is truly emotionally stressed experiences internal effects which other humans (and perhaps even the one experiencing the emotion) can not perceive, such as the secretion of the hormone cortisol.
    This is well established by scientists, who can measure physiological changes using tools that go beyond the observations you make with the naked eye.

  20. Paul R says

    @BBG372: Your comments hardly make sense. So if humans can’t perceive something, it doesn’t exist? I can’t smell a dog who is two blocks away, but my dog can. I can’t detect cancer in urine, but dogs can be trained to do so. Maybe you should know things too, because apparently my dog is smarter than you, Mr. Science.

  21. margueritegautier says

    I wound up lying on the floor in fetal position, sobbing hysterically when the World Trade Center towers came down, not too far from where I live. My two tiny little dogs jammed themselves as close as possible.

  22. Tommy Hayes says

    “I really don’t see the point of spending money on studying things we already know.”
    (This post selected as representative of the sentiment conveyed buy the remark.)

    Because there is a difference between scientific and anecdotal knowlege. See your favorite dictionary for the distinction.

  23. Tommy Hayes says

    “Science is suppose to prove things and since you will never be a dog you can never ‘prove’ a dog has empathy. This is why science is being so discredited.”

    Provision of proof is a function science, but not its sole purpose. Evolutionary or string theory have never been proven, each are based upon careful scientific observation. Science, at its heart, is about making predictions. If A occurs then B follows, for instance. In this case, if a human cries, a dog is very likely to respond. You may understand this from your own observations, but that is not evidence of universal truth. In short, it is not science, it’s anecdotal.

    It seems to me a little less self-righteous acrymony on your part may be useful in expanding your horizons.

  24. Dan Cobb says

    Like the first poster said: Anyone with a dog already knows this. It’s amazing that anyone spent a penny to “study” this. Dogs are hyper-aware of their owner’s mood/feelings. Let’s face it, to some degree their survival depends on it. When my father died, my dog –even though she didn’t know my father well– felt my mourning in spades and sensed the heartbreak, and she was heart-broken too.

  25. BZ says

    A lot of early animal research wasn’t much good because it wasn’t designed from the animal’s point of view. For instance, if you’re trying to test dog or cat intelligence, you must first understand how their social and sensory abilities developed, then present the test with that in mind; there is also a wide variation between individuals within a species (i.e. some dogs are smarter than others.)

    The reason research like this is conducted is to separate evidence from just-so stories. Along the way you may confirm some of what you suspected all along was true; contradict things that “everybody knew” was true; and learn some surprising new things that nobody even suspected.

  26. jamal49 says

    I guess we all have our personal anecdotes about our pet friends that perhaps this scientific research now confirms: that our pets can sometimes sense our emotional state and respond accordingly.

    I would be hard-pressed to put into words how my dog and cat helped me through the very trying, very sad months after my best friend’s death. All I know is that they–individually and together–gave me comfort and solace and I could not have worked through the grief and loss I felt if it had not been for them.

    I do not wish to anthropomorphize their behavior but I will swear that they understood what I was feeling and how they acted and interacted with me during that period really did guide me through the treacherous shoals of sorrow and despair.

    I am forever grateful to them.

  27. say what says

    And a cat would just urinate in your clean laundry basket if it saw you crying.Dogs are infinitely superior in intelligence and emotional response.

    Posted by: Mark | Jun 10, 2012 12:13:29 PM

    YES!

    also cats will eat you if given 1/2 a chance while dogs will take longer if at all to nibble on a dead owner

    cat owners…Never die alone with your cat because it will start eating you in no time

  28. Robby says

    I can’t believe the amount of ignorance about science in some of these postings. Just about everything that has become a part of our daily lives came about because of studies that were considered superfluous, and while I have experienced everything that this study seems to indicate, I certainly wouldn’t take anecdotal evidence with anything more than a grain of salt.

    I guess I don’t understand why animal lovers would feel like this is a waste of time instead of being excited that science backs up what they know about animals.

  29. ophu says

    I’ve had both cats and dogs and seen both show empathy. Dogs have had more time to develop this trait, though, since they were domesticated earlier.

  30. One of the CA 36,000 says

    This isn’t news, but I’m glad to see some scientific analysis of this phenomenon of empathetic behavior. But I’m convinced it is real empathy on the part of the animals.

    My cats are unusually attached to me and my husband, and if we’re sad they will definitely hang close to us and interact as cats will– rubbing against us, purring, meowing. When I found out my sister had died, as I sat in bed sobbing on the phone with my mom, the cats both climbed into bed and “comforted” me. It wasn’t selfish self-interest– they knew I didn’t have food. They somehow knew I needed their support.

    And dogs act the same way. No question about it.

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