Study: Dogs as adept at empathy as young humans

Score another point for man's best friend.

Dogs are fantastic. I could probably write an entire novel up top here about how great dogs are. On a scale of 1 to 10, dogs are 2,000. And researchers have evidence to back that up.


A recent study from the journal Learning and Behavior shows that dogs both feel and act upon empathy. 

Thirty-four dogs—of which 16 were trained therapy dogs—and their owners were separated by a closed, opaque door. The dogs were hooked up to a heart-rate monitor to measure their stress levels. After a short while, the owners either hummed or gave a "distressed cry". Researchers measured how long it took for dogs to react. They found that dogs whose owners gave the distressed cry opened the door three times faster than those whose owners had just hummed. Their stress levels were raised, but only by enough to accomplish the task of opening the door.

Here's the key: the dogs suppressed their own feelings of distress and helped out. This is key because this is ultimately what young humans learn to do—rather, must learn to do—in order to help out (see the studies by Eisenberg et al., 1996 and Eisenberg & Fabes, 1990). You/me/dogs can't do anything when stress levels are matched with the person in stress, therefore empathy has to be attempted. (After all, what is the biological benefit of matching stress levels with someone in need?) 

Funnily enough, the dogs whose owners hummed had no change in stress levels but instead opened the door out of curiosity. And the therapy dogs didn't open the door any quicker than the other dogs. 

Want to see the experiment for yourself? Sure you do.

Dogs that could suppress their own distress were the ones who acted on their empathy and jumped into action. Julia Meyers-Manor of Ripon College, a co-author of the study, posits: "It appears that adopting another's emotional state through emotional contagion alone is not sufficient to motivate an empathetic helping response; otherwise, the most stressed dogs could have also opened the door. The extent of this empathetic response and under what conditions it can be elicited deserve further investigation, especially as it can improve our understanding of the shared evolutionary history of humans and dogs." 

This display of empathy is to be expected, as dogs have been living alongside humankind for millennia. Dogs were first domesticated twice by humans around 12,500 years ago: once in Asia and once in what is now Western Europe. You can read the full study here, it's quite interesting. 

And now, here are four minutes of dogs jumping on trampolines: 

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why is 18 the age of adulthood if the brain can take 30 years to mature?

Neuroscience research suggests it might be time to rethink our ideas about when exactly a child becomes an adult.

Mind & Brain
  • Research suggests that most human brains take about 25 years to develop, though these rates can vary among men and women, and among individuals.
  • Although the human brain matures in size during adolescence, important developments within the prefrontal cortex and other regions still take pace well into one's 20s.
  • The findings raise complex ethical questions about the way our criminal justice systems punishes criminals in their late teens and early 20s.
Keep reading Show less

Apparently even NASA is wrong about which planet is closest to Earth

Three scientists publish a paper proving that Mercury, not Venus, is the closest planet to Earth.

Strange Maps
  • Earth is the third planet from the Sun, so our closest neighbor must be planet two or four, right?
  • Wrong! Neither Venus nor Mars is the right answer.
  • Three scientists ran the numbers. In this YouTube video, one of them explains why our nearest neighbor is... Mercury!
Keep reading Show less

Mini-brains attach to spinal cord and twitch muscles

A new method of growing mini-brains produces some startling results.

(Lancaster, et al)
Surprising Science
  • Researchers find a new and inexpensive way to keep organoids growing for a year.
  • Axons from the study's organoids attached themselves to embryonic mouse spinal cord cells.
  • The mini-brains took control of muscles connected to the spinal cords.
Keep reading Show less