Dogs Lend A Helping Paw When It Comes To Showing Empathy

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A new study gives credence to the belief shared among dog owners that their furry best friends just know how to make them feel better, reports Science Daily. According to lead researcher Emily M. Sanford of Johns Hopkins University, many dogs are not only able to show empathy to humans, but sometimes are able to act on that empathy, as well. In fact, the study found that this doesn’t just apply to certified therapy and emotional support dogs.

The study, Science Daily reports, was published in the journal Learning & Behavior, and focused on testing whether or not dogs have both empathetic and prosocial nature.

Sanford and her colleagues asked the owners of 34 dogs to stand on the opposite side of a see-through closed door from their dog. The owners were then directed to give either a cry of distress or to simply hum, while researchers observed the dogs’ behavior and heart rate variability to measure their response to the situation at hand. Researchers also measured how the dogs gazed at their owners as a measurement of bond between dog and owner. Of the dogs used in the study, 16 were registered therapy dogs.

Dogs who can control their own distress are best able to respond their owners' distress, new study finds.Featured image credit: Branislov NeninShutterstock

According to Science Daily, dogs were not any more likely to respond to distress calls or to humming, Sanford and colleagues learned as a course of their experiment, but replied fastest if they heard their owner crying. Based on their measured heart rates during the experiment and their observed behavior responses, researchers concluded that the dogs who responded to their owners crying were less stressed at the time of response than they were while baseline measurements were recorded, indicating that dogs who can control their own distress when their owners cry are the ones who will be best able to respond to their distress.

The study also concluded that registered therapy dogs performed as well as, but not better than, the other dogs observed, as therapy dog certification is granted based on obedience rather than the dog’s ability to bond with humans.

Study co-author Julia Meyers-Manor of the U.S.-Based Ripon College further explained how results of their study could be put into practice.

“It might be beneficial for therapy organizations to consider more traits important for therapeutic improvement, such as empathy, in their testing protocols. It would also be interesting to determine whether service dogs show a different pattern of results given their extensive training in attentiveness to their human companions.”