Do Dogs Feel Empathy?
When you’re having a bad day, nothing can cheer you up faster than the sight of your dog happily greeting you at the door. In your dog’s mind, nothing can go wrong when you’re there and all he wants is to spend time with you. But how does your dog know when you’re upset and is it really possible that a dog can experience empathy?
Is a Dog Capable of Experiencing Empathy?
Think back to a time when you were particularly stressed or upset. How did your dog respond? In many cases, dog owners report that when they’re feeling emotionally upset, their dogs choose that moment to show them some extra love. In this situation, what many dog owners interpret as their dog showing empathy, psychologists and behavioral biologists may interpret as something else.
Animal behaviorists generally agree that a dog has the emotional and mental capacity of a two- or three-year-old child. While some children may begin to show signs of empathy around this age, most do not truly develop empathy until they are four years old. What these psychologists and behavioral biologists believe is really happening is something called emotional contagion – this is when an individual responds to someone else’s emotions without really understanding them.
As an example of emotional contagion, consider the example of a daycare center where one child starts to cry and other children start to cry as well. In this example, the other children are not showing empathy – they’re simply responding to the other child’s emotional state in a similar way without really understanding why.
This is what those psychologists believe is happening when your dog sees you acting upset – he becomes upset and he himself becomes upset. When he comes over and nuzzles your arm or puts him head on your lap, it is because he is seeking comfort for himself – he is not trying to comfort you. What you choose to believe is up to you – there is no clear-cut way to really understand what is happening in a dog’s brain to explain why he does what he does.
Can a Dog Empathize with Other Dogs?
Empathy is defined as the ability to interpret the emotions of another person (or animal), but that is not all. It also involves understanding and even sharing those same emotions. In order to believe that a dog can show empathy for another dog, you have to believe that dogs are capable of emotion.
There are plenty of studies that show the ability of dogs to read the emotions of humans and it has also been shown that dogs can form true friendships with one another. But when a dog responds in kind to a dog who is experiencing distress, what is really happening? It is certainly an interesting question, but more research is needed to determine the answer.
Dogs are amazing creatures and we humans have only begun to scratch the surface of understanding them. But you don’t have to understand everything that your dog does in order to love him. You love him because he is your best friend and faithful companion – that’s all you really need to know.
Kate Barrington is the loving owner of two cats (Bagel and Munchkin) and a noisy herd of guinea pigs. Having grown up with golden retrievers, Kate has a great deal of experience with dogs but labels herself a lover of all pets. Having received a Bachelor's degree in English, Kate has combined her love for pets and her passion for writing to create her own freelance writing business, specializing in the pet niche.
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