A recent study from the journal Learning and Behavior shows that dogs feel and act on empathy.
This demonstration of empathy was to be expected, since dogs have been living with humans for millennia. Dogs were domesticated twice by humans about 12,500 years ago: once in Asia and again in what is now Western Europe.
In the study, 34 dogs, of which 16 were therapy dogs, and their owners were separated by a closed and opaque door. The dogs were connected to a heart rate monitor to measure their stress levels. After a while, the owners hummed or emitted an “anguished cry”.
The researchers measured how long it took the dogs to react. They discovered that the dogs whose owners gave the anguished cry opened the door 3 times faster than those whose owners had just hummed.
His stress levels increased, but only enough to accomplish the task of opening the door. That is, the dogs repressed their own feelings of anguish to be useful.
Neither humans nor dogs can help when stress levels correspond to the stressed person. After all, what is the biological benefit of equalizing stress levels with someone who needs it?
Interestingly, the dogs whose owners hummed did not alter the stress levels, but opened the door out of curiosity. And the therapy dogs did not open the door faster than the other dogs.
According to Julia Meyers-Manor, of Ripon College, co-author of the study:
It seems that adopting the emotional state of another person through emotional contagion alone is not enough to motivate a response of empathic help; otherwise, more stressed dogs could also have opened the door. The extent of this empathic response and under what conditions can be obtained deserves further investigation, especially because it can improve our understanding of the shared evolutionary history of humans and dogs.