Anyone who owns a dog knows, hands down, that their dogs can, and will, attempt to comfort us in times of sadness or distress. Whether we are just having a bad day or find ourselves convalescing, our dogs naturally assume the role of emotional support regardless of whether or not they have been trained to do so. This sort of empathy displayed by our 4 legged friends is well documented in anecdotal evidence from all over the world.
This innate ability to empathize across species has been measured scientifically. But what about a dog’s ability to empathize with members of their own species? Will a dog that is exposed to sounds of distress from another canine exhibit an emotional response and/or empathetic behavior?
These are the questions the authors of a recent study endeavored to answer. The study is designed to investigate whether a dog exposed to a conspecifics’ –members of the same species– distress vocalization would elicit “empathy-like” behavior and if that behavior would change if the source of the vocalization was familiar, non-familiar, or acoustically similar, but computer generated.
Altogether, 16 pairs of dogs above participated in this study. The researchers subjected one of the pair to distress vocalizations of their familiar partner, a non-familiar partner, and a control sound that was “acoustically similar” to a canine whine. All of the familiar pairs had lived in the same household for at least a year prior to the study. Of the 16 pairs, one of the dogs was randomly selected to be the subject, while the other was assigned the role of familiar partner. The dogs from the other pairs were used as the non-familiar distress vocalizations.
The distress vocalizations were recorded weeks before the experiments took place in a control room where the owner left the dog for a period of three minutes.
The dog’s cortisol levels were tested before and after being exposed to the vocalization, as well as, having their heart rate monitored. After the vocalizations were played the familiar partner dog was let into the room and the interactions between the two were recorded for thirty seconds. The following list was used to identify the behavior of the subject: