Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Empathy between dogs and their owners - proven.

I always enjoy reading well conducted research articles concerning canine behaviour especially those that give further proof to the incredible bond between a dog and their owner. 

I was interested in an article I read recently ( which had a couple of extra references, which my geeky nature had to follow up. 

One in particular referred to the way dog owners feel they can read the emotions of their dog through their facial expressions and not just through the way they are standing, turn their head or the way they hold their tail. It appears that this is actually true. A Japanese study in 2013 (Nagasawa et al) examined the facial expressions of dogs, using a high speed camera, when they were presented with their owner and someone they didn’t know.

It is always good to have things like this verified so we are just not classed as ‘mad dog people’. The study showed that when a dog is reunited with their owner, they lifted their eyebrows, especially the left eyebrow. But when they saw someone they didn’t know, there was little facial movement. 

The research team suggested this demonstrated behavioural facial laterality in response to emotional stimuli which reflects their attachment to their owner. 

Another study from the article referred to contagious yawning. We frequently yawn empathetically when someone we are watching yawns – echoing their behaviour. But apparently, this is not limited to humans. I guess it is not too much of a surprise since dogs have always been bred to watch us and see what we are doing. 

The study by Romero et al (2013) was conducted to determine whether contagious yawning in a dog was due to mild distress related response or empathy. They studied 25 dogs faced with familiar humans (their owners) and an unfamiliar human (the researcher) and acted out a yawn or other movements used as a control mouth expression. The dogs yawned far more frequently when watching their owners than the unfamiliar human which clearly demonstrates the correlation between emotional proximity. In addition, contagious yawns in the dogs were significantly higher during true yawning than other mouth movements. To make the inference even more factual, the research team actually measured the heart rate of the dogs. This did not change throughout the experiment which demonstrated the yawning response was not due to stress. They concluded that their study showed this contagious yawning is consistent with a form of empathy between a dog and their owner. 

So next time someone tells you that your dog can’t possibly understand what you are saying, tell them “Oh yes they can” and it is now scientifically proven. 
Talking to my kids


Nagasawa M et al. (2013) “Dogs show left facial lateralization upon reunion with their owners”. Behavioural Processes, 98 September 2013, pp 112–116 

Romero T et al. (2013) “Familiarity Bias and Physiological Responses in Contagious Yawning by Dogs Support Link to Empathy”. PLoS ONE 8(8): e71365. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071365

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