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Man's Best Friend: Mere Companion or Source of Compassion?

Recent science suggests that dogs may have more to contribute during difficult emotional times than previously thought.

By Erin Barta

Erin, a recent graduate from the University of North Dakota, is an avid reader, writer, and empathy-enthusiast who is interning at Ashoka prior to beginning her graduate studies this fall at Clark University.

June 14, 2012

In understanding the science behind human capacity for empathy, it's not uncommon to turn to the animal kingdom for additional evidence. It's been widely accepted that several animal species -- primates, most notably -- exhibit prosocial tendencies.  While primates are our close evolutionary cousins, dogs are our closer companions.  What does man's best friend tell us about the science of empathy?

In 2008, a study in Biology Letters solidified the legitimacy of dogs within this discussion. When measuring what is known as the "yawn contagion," researchers found that a higher percentage of dogs (72%) than humans (45-60%) yawned in response to the sight of a human yawning. This type of behavior is one of the most basic expressions of empathy.

However, recent research has taken our knowledge of the canine expression of empathy one step further. A new study published in Animal Condition lends the science to suggest that dogs demonstrate applied empathy, too.

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Using the same techniques used to measure the capacity for empathy and consolation in toddlers, 18 dogs were individually exposed to two separate people -- one stranger and one owner -- who alternated between crying and humming. According to USA Today:

"Overall, 15 of the 18 dogs approached a crying stranger or owner, with 13 of them displaying submissive or calm behavior. 'Dogs directed significantly more person-oriented behaviors toward the person crying than the silent companion,' finds the study."

Although all you pet owners out there have long since known of your furry little friend's capacity to demonstrate comfort and consolation, the science to support it is steadily coming out of the woodwork -- proving, once again, that this world is wired for empathy. 

Image from Microsoft Office