Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to distress in humans: an exploratory study
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Empathy covers a range of phenomena from cognitive empathy involving metarepresentation to emotional contagion stemming from automatically triggered reflexes. An experimental protocol first used with human infants was adapted to investigate empathy in domestic dogs. Dogs oriented toward their owner or a stranger more often when the person was pretending to cry than when they were talking or humming. Observers, unaware of experimental hypotheses and the condition under which dogs were responding, more often categorized dogs’ approaches as submissive as opposed to alert, playful or calm during the crying condition. When the stranger pretended to cry, rather than approaching their usual source of comfort, their owner, dogs sniffed, nuzzled and licked the stranger instead. The dogs’ pattern of response was behaviorally consistent with an expression of empathic concern, but is most parsimoniously interpreted as emotional contagion coupled with a previous learning history in which they have been rewarded for approaching distressed human companions.