Study Shows Dogs Natural Desire To Comfort Humans
According to a study by Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer of Goldsmiths College in London, dogs are good for us in more ways than we might have imagined. Dogs showed that that they have a vested interest in making humans happy, as well as being loyal, according to the study, published in the in the journal of Animal Cognition.
Empathy covers a range of phenomena from cognitive empathy involving metarepresentation to emotional contagion stemming from automatically triggered reflexes. An experimental protocol first used with human infants was adapted to investigate empathy in domestic dogs.
Dogs tended to wander toward their owner or even a stranger more often when the person was pretending to cry than when they were talking or humming. Observers, who were unaware of the experiment and conditions under which dogs were responding, said more often that the dogs’ approaches were submissive and fearful, as opposed to alert, playful, or calm.
It has been found that when typically-developing human infants are faced with suddenly crying individuals, they will often hug, pat, make appropriate verbal utterances, offer toys, and sometimes recruit assistance. While the behavior of dogs under these circumstances is harder to interpret, dogs showed increased activity to people showing signs of distress. Dogs can whine, nuzzle, lick, lay their head in the person’s lap or fetch toys.
Such behavior could be an expression of contagious distress, an egoistic comfort-seeking rather than empathically motivated comfort-offering. Alternatively, such behavior could be motivated by curiosity. “The primary challenge in investigating possible empathy in dogs is devising an experimental procedure that can elucidate the distinction between curiosity, egoistic attention- or comfort-seeking and expressions of genuine empathic concern,” says the study.