July 19, 2017

Canine Empathy: Is It Real?

After hearing negative emotional sounds from dogs or humans, dogs demonstrated emotional contagion by matching the emotional state of the sound.
By JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
In a study recently published in Animal Cognition, dogs displayed emotional contagion after hearing negative emotional sounds from humans and other dogs. This was the first study on canine empathy to compare dogs’ behavioral responses to negative and positive emotional sounds, “[increasing] our knowledge on animal emotions and behavior,” the investigators wrote.
 
Empathy is the ability to recognize and share another individual’s emotions. Emotional contagion is a social phenomenon, previously defined as “an automatic and unconscious emotional state-matching between two individuals.” Various species, including primates and rodents, can demonstrate emotional contagion. Notably, dogs exhibit intraspecies and interspecies emotional contagion, making them an ideal model to study this concept.
 
Previous studies have reported dogs’ sensitivity to vocal emotional sounds from humans and other dogs. In the current study, investigators employed a new approach to studying canine emotional contagion, thereby providing additional insight into how dogs match the emotional state of others.
 
The investigators studied 53 adult pet dogs of various breeds. Testing was conducted in 2 rooms where a set of 4 sounds was played back at a normal volume from a hidden loudspeaker; dogs were accompanied by their owners, who wore wireless earphones and read a magazine during testing. The sounds represented several dimensions:
  • Species: Dog and human
  • Valence: Positive (laughing) and negative (crying)
  • Emotionality: Emotional (positive or negative human and dog sounds) and nonemotional (biotic, like crickets; abiotic, like rustling leaves)
To prevent emotional carryover, emotional sounds were played 1st and 4th and nonemotional sounds were played 2nd and 3rd in each sound set. Investigators prevented habituation to the testing scenario by changing the loudspeaker location and having dogs switch rooms after each trial.
 
Video recordings of the trials were analyzed for several behavioral categories:
  • Owner-oriented: looking at or making direct body contact with the owner
  • Loudspeaker-oriented: looking at or approaching the loudspeaker
  • Arousal or negative emotional state: 10 behaviors, including whining and immobility
The “arousal or negative emotional state” behaviors were rated using a scoring system that measured emotional reactivity. Researchers observed several notable findings for each dimension:
 
Emotionality
  • Behavioral responses differed for emotional versus nonemotional sounds.
  • After hearing emotional sounds, dogs spent significantly less time looking at their owner, spent significantly more time looking at the loudspeaker, and were more likely to approach the loudspeaker.
  • Arousal and negative emotional state behaviors were more frequent after hearing emotional sounds.
  • Emotional reactivity scores were significantly lower for neutered dogs than intact dogs. 
Species
  • For most behaviors, dog and human sounds elicited similar responses.
  • Dogs remained immobile for significantly longer after hearing dog sounds.
Immobility after hearing dog sounds may indicate social tension resulting from unfamiliar dog sounds, the investigators believed.
 
Valence
  • Immobility lasted significantly longer after hearing negative sounds.
  • Emotional reactivity scores were significantly higher with negative sounds.
Regarding only nonemotional sounds, dogs were significantly more likely to approach their owner after hearing abiotic than biotic sounds.
 
Bringing it Together
The dogs’ ability to match the emotional state of negative emotional sounds indicated emotional contagion, the investigators concluded. Validation of canine positive emotional state behaviors is needed, they wrote, “to advance our understanding of emotional contagion and empathic-like behavior for positive emotions in this species and, thereby, [gain] a more comprehensive view on canine empathy.”
 
 
Dr. JoAnna Pendergrass received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company.

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