"Do Dogs Have Empathy? Or Is It a Sixth Sense?"

How Dogs Respond to Our Hidden Desires.

Originally published in slightly different form on July 11, 2012 at PsychologyToday.com.

“I’m picking up good vibrations...” — Brian Wilson

Good Vibrations

There’s no question that dogs know when their owners aren’t feeling well, either physically or emotionally. Dogs can even sense these things in strangers. The Beach Boys’ song, “Good Vibrations,” was inspired by something Brian Wilson’s mother told him and his brothers, Dennis and Carl, when they were young. She said that dogs can tell if someone has a good vibration or a bad one.

Years ago a friend of mine had hip surgery, which put her in a very vulnerable state physically and emotionally. One day, when I came to help with some errands, I brought along my Dalmatian Freddie and one of my clients’ dogs, a blue great Dane named Achilles. Strangely, it wasn’t Freddie (who knew my friend very well) but Achilles who went to her and laid his chin sweetly and gingerly onto her hip, as if to comfort her. This was an amazing thing. How could this not be a form of empathy?

A recent scientific study out of England on “empathic-like behavior” in dogs, by Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer, starts with the following definition: “Empathy covers a range of phenomena from cognitive empathy involving metarepresentation1 to emotional contagion stemming from automatically triggered reflexes.”

Just to be clear, emotional contagion is an automatically triggered reflex, but empathy is not. True empathy—as Dr. Stanley Coren points out in his recent article—requires the ability to put one’s self into another being’s shoes, emotionally speaking. This requires a sense of self-and-other—a cognitive ability that doesn’t develop in human children until they’re somewhere between 4 to 7 years old. [2]

If the first requirement for empathy is a sense of self, then a small brain region called the anterior insular cortex is a good starting point. It plays a crucial role in self-awareness most probably because a unique type of cell—the von Economo neuron (VEN)—is located there. [3]

These neurons are found in more abundance in persons with psychiatric disorders where the patient exhibits an exaggerated or hyper sense of self-awareness, and there are less of them in persons whose disorders involve a lack of self-awareness.

CalTech neuroscientist John Allman examined the role these neurons play by examining the brains of 28 primate and 20 non-primates species, including dogs. The concentration was greatest in humans, smaller in chimps, and still less in gorillas. None were found in dogs.

This suggests that dogs don’t have the capacity to see themselves as separate from their environment, from other dogs, or from their owners, which means that while they can tune into our emotions, and do so on a daily basis, they can’t feel empathy for us simply because they don’t perceive themselves as separate beings.

This would ostensibly mean that when Achilles “comforted” my friend, he did it because he felt her pain on a visceral, not a cognitive level. Does this mean he was experiencing emotional contagion? I don’t think so. That sort of thing usually happens when a group of protestors suddenly turn—all at once—into an angry mob, or when a group of friends—perhaps teenage girls—have a sudden laughing fit. Achilles’ behavior was a sweet, gentle communion with one person in pain.

How the Study Was Done

To make sure that the dogs would behave in a natural manner, each dog was tested in the living-room of its own home. The owner and a stranger sat roughly two yards apart from one another while a third person who knew very little about dogs stood in a corner, recording the dog’s behavior on a video camera.

Each dog was exposed to two different stimuli, coming either from the owner or the stranger: at separate times, the owner or stranger either hummed for 20 seconds, or pretended to cry for the same amount of time.

The result was that the dogs were more likely to approach the person—owner or stranger—if that person was pretending to cry than if that person was humming. And the dogs approached the humans in a way that the observer (the one with the camera) interpreted as being submissive rather than simply curious or distressed.

The conclusion: “There are many different ways in which dogs could respond to an apparently distressed human [italics mine]. They could fail to respond at all and ignore the crying person; they could become fearful and avoidant, even approaching … for reassurance; they could become alert and even act in a dominant manner toward an apparently weakened individual; they could become curious or playful; or they could approach and touch the distressed person in a gentle or submissive manner thereby providing reassurance or comfort.”

The researchers make it clear that their study doesn’t prove anything about empathy, or empathy-like behavior in dogs. Yet the title of their paper states quite clearly that the dogs were responding to “distress in humans”, not pretend distress. And therein—I think—lies the rub.

Do Desires Have Vibrations?

Dogs are geniuses at detecting drugs, bombs, the locations of disaster victims, not to mention human weakness like cancer, the onset of an epileptic attack, etc. Dogs sometimes know their owner’s emotions better than their owners do. Achilles knew exactly where to rest his chin—on my friend’s injured hip—even though he hadn’t been given any information that that was the source of her pain and discomfort. I find it implausible that dogs wouldn’t know the difference between real and fake emotions.

In his book Your Dog Is Your Mirror, former police dog trainer Kevin Behan tells numerous stories of riding along with police dog handlers where the cops thought a certain person they observed on their shift seemed to be a fine upstanding citizen, but the dog knew better; they knew that the person in question didn’t have a “good vibration.” And in every single case the dog was right.

It seems to me that there’s something lacking in this study on dogs. Without any information concerning the emotional valence, if any, in the human test subjects, we can’t say for certain what the dogs were responding to. And if the humans were only pretending to cry, the dogs were either responding to some outward aspect of the crying behavior (a reminder of their littermates whining perhaps?) or something else, which I think is probably an ability to sense and tune in to an underlying desire in the human beings involved in the study.

How could the researcher’s desires have affected the outcome?

I think it’s because dogs are able to tune into and synchronize their behaviors to be in alignment with us and our unconscious (or semi-conscious) wishes.

There was another study done a few months back where researchers brought in some detection dogs and their handlers. In some cases the handlers were given a false location of the substance to be detected. In others they weren’t. In the cases where the handlers expected the dogs to go to a certain location, most dogs went to those spots even though there was no contraband stashed there, overriding the much more accurate information coming from their olfactory senses and their previous training.

Why did the dogs do it?

When these dogs are working, they and their handlers have the same goal—to detect the locations of certain objects. But in this case the dogs and handlers had different goals. The dogs wanted to find the objects, but the handlers thought they already knew where the objects were located, so they unconsciously influenced the dogs to look in those very spots. And the dogs—being good, obedient animals—did what their handlers wanted them to.

Targeting Weakness in Prey = Comforting Humans in Distress

I have 5 dogs in day care today. To test this idea that dogs will act in an empathic or empathic-like manner, I pretended to cry.

The dogs all woke up and came over to me. Oscar, who’s the newest member of the group, seemed distressed. He wanted me to comfort him. Fancy, who barks when she’s nervous, barked. Caleb, a hunting dog, brought me a toy. Samba, an excitable Jack-a-poo, whined, wiggled, and jumped in the air. And Bailey, who’s an older dog (with an old soul) just looked at me with weary eyes. They’re all very attached to me, and not a single one of them seemed interested in comforting me.

Since my belief is that dogs don’t respond to fake distress in their owners, that’s the result I got with these 5 dogs; that’s what the dogs fetched me. And since Custance & Mayer seem to believe that dogs wouldn’t be able to differentiate between fake crying and real distress, that’s what they got.

Dogs are the most adaptable, the most social, and the most trainable land mammal not because of their mental capacities, but because they have a greater capacity to be in-synch emotionally with one another and with us. This capacity comes directly from wolves, who are able to tune into weaknesses in prey animals and capitalize on them. If wolves didn’t have this ability they would have surely died out.

Dogs inherited this ability and started using it on us, manipulating us into “domesticating” them. Over the years they developed a deeper and stronger ability to tune into our emotional states. It’s what enables them to work for us and, quite often, to comfort us when we’re not feeling well. It’s not empathy. And it’s not emotional contagion. I think it’s more like a sixth sense, an ability to tune in to our emotional vibrations.


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