Dogs appear to empathize with us, to the point that some therapy dogs even seem to take on the emotions of their sick or distressed human charges, according to a new paper in the latest issue of Biology Letters.

cute dog therapy
© badrobot
The matter is more complicated than you might think, because researchers need to tease apart true empathy from a phenomenon known as "emotional contagion."

Emotional contagion is more of a knee-jerk reaction to various behaviors and other cues. For example, if you yawn, others near you, including dogs, might start to yawn too. They're not necessarily empathizing with you, although areas of the brain tied to empathy are involved. In fact, the mimicry is primarily triggered at a subconscious level. No one is certain why this happens. Some scientists suspect it has to do with communicating levels of alertness and coordinating sleep schedules.

But dogs do more than just copy us, according to the study's authors Karine Silva and Liliana Sousa of the Abel Salazar Biomedical Sciences Institute.

"Indeed, a study showing that pets, namely dogs, behave as 'upset' as children when exposed to familiar people faking distress, strongly suggests 'sympathetic concern,'" Silva and Sousa write. "Also it has been reported that untrained dogs may be sensitive to human emergencies and may act appropriately to summon help, which, if true, suggests empathic perspective taking."

cute dog yawning
© Karpati
In experiments, dog owners feigned a heart attack or pretended to experience an accident in which a bookcase fell on them and pinned them to the floor. The dogs in these studies just looked confused and didn't do much, but the scientists think canines need to also smell and hear signals tied to actual stress in order to respond. In other words, you probably can't easily fool a dog when it comes to emergencies.

Another study found that therapy dogs are both emotionally and physically affected by their work, "needing massages and calming measures after the sessions," according to the authors.

Silva and Sousa argue that dogs have the capacity to empathize with humans for three main reasons:
1. Dogs originated from wolves, which are highly social animals that engage in cooperative activities and are believed to have some ability to empathize with their fellow wolves.

2. Biological changes produced during the domestication of dogs may have allowed them to synchronize their wolf-inherited empathic capacities with those of humans.

3. Breed diversification and selection for canine intelligence may have increased the dog ability to empathize.
The scientists say further research is needed, with many questions remaining. If dogs do empathize with us, are some better able to do this than others? If so, is that ability at times tied to certain breeds more than others? If the ability is connected to genetics, are some dogs and people just born more empathetic than others? Can you train a dog or a person to be more understanding?

As the researchers point out, all of these related issues "should have considerable implications for education and society as a whole."