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Studies Show That Dogs Mirror Your Behavior As a Sign of Empathy

They're man's best friend for a reason.

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If you have a dog, you’ve probably wondered whether or not they can tell how you’re feeling. Yes, they lick your tears when you cry, but tears are salty, so it’s the salinity — not the emotions — that attracts them, right? They snuggle up next to you when you’re sick, but they just want to be on the couch, right? Not exactly. According to science, your dog not only notices how you’re feeling, they mirror some of your behaviors to show it. Read on to see the science-backed ways your dog shows you they care with empathy. 

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Can dogs sense our feelings?

It’s no surprise that your dog cares; they are man’s best friend, after all. But in order to empathize with you — to understand what you’re feeling in an attempt to help you — your dog needs to have the ability to recognize and distinguish your moods. This might seem like a tall order for an animal that chases its own tail for fun, but as it turns out, dogs have an immense capacity for understanding human emotions. In a 2017 study, scientists played different kinds of audio for dogs: sounds that indicated positive emotions (like laughing), negative emotions (like crying), or no emotions (like rainfall). The dogs paid significantly more attention to the emotional sounds (both positive and negative) than the non-emotive sounds, and they behaved differently according to whether the sounds were positive or negative. Researchers concluded that dogs can both pick up on human emotions and distinguish between the kinds of emotions humans feel. Modern Dog Magazine discusses another study in which dogs watched their owners open two boxes. The owner reacted positively to the contents of one box, and with disgust at the other one. When the owners left the room and the dogs could investigate, 81 percent of the dogs immediately went to the box to which their owner reacted happily, indicating that they can distinguish between and assign meaning to positive and negative reactions.

Do they actually care about our feelings?

Research says that they do. So much so, in fact, that their responses are to either help, or freeze up with an overwhelming amount of emotion.  A 2018 study showed that dogs opened a door that separated them from their owner faster when they heard their owner crying than they did when their owner was humming. The dogs that opened the door and rushed to comfort their humans showed less stress than those that did not, suggesting two things: Firstly, the dogs that jumped to action were able to “suppress their own distress … to focus on the human involved,”; and secondly, the dogs that didn’t open the door froze out of an overwhelming amount of stress for their human — not a lack of care. Based on a test that evaluated the way the dogs gaze at them, both “openers” and “non-openers” showed strong emotional bonds with their owners. Professor and dog psychology expert Clive Wynne tells National Geographic, “The emotional connection between humans and dogs is the essence of the relationship … dogs are amazingly social beings, so they are easily infected with our warmth and joy,” which means that our negative feelings are contagious as well.

How do dogs show empathy?

When your friends and family show empathy, they say things like I know that’s difficult to deal with, or I understand why you’re frustrated, and they give you a hug. Dogs can’t speak, nor can they hug, so how can they express empathy? Primarily by mirroring our behaviors, according to research. See if your dog has ever exhibited these behaviors that indicate empathy. 

They yawn after you. No matter how awake you feel, it’s almost impossible not to yawn after seeing someone else yawn. This behavior is involuntary and psychological, but scientists understand that we mirror behaviors as a subconscious sign of empathy, and that we tend to “catch” yawns more often from people with whom we have a close relationship. While this behavior was believed to only occur in humans and primates, a study in 2008 showed that dogs “catch” yawns from their owners, as well, indicating that they, too, have a capacity for empathetic behavioral mirroring. In fact, this research reports that 72 percent of the study’s participating dogs yawned after seeing a human yawn, compared to just 33 percent of chimpanzees, and 45-60 percent of fellow humans in other studies. Next time you yawn around your pup, see if they yawn, too — if they do, they might have a big capacity for empathy. 

They tense up when you’re tense. Stress isn’t good for you: it raises your blood pressure, causes fatigue, and makes you feel downright crummy. Need more motivation to take a breather and calm down? Your stress isn’t good for Fido either. In a 2019 study conducted in Sweden, researchers measured the cortisol levels (the body’s stress hormone) of dogs and their owners. They found that regardless of the dogs’ personalities, their cortisol levels were higher when their owner’s levels were high, and lower when their owner’s levels were low. “The personality of the owner … had a strong effect. This has led us to suggest that the dog mirrors its owners’ stress,” said Lina Roth, the head researcher. When you feel stressed or down, and your dog seems to be acting anxious as well, it isn’t just your imagination — they sense and imitate your emotions as a sign of empathy. 

Do all dogs show empathy?

Though most dogs are capable of showing empathy, a 2019 study indicates that both the sex of the dog and the length of their relationship with their owner have an impact on the emotional bond, and therefore, amount of empathy a dog shows for their owner. (Female dogs show stronger empathy, and the longer the relationship, the stronger the response.) So if you’re feeling concerned that you and your newly adopted dog aren’t on the same wavelength, just give it some time. Chances are, you’ll be more emotionally synced as your relationship grows. And if they aren’t exhibiting behaviors like contagious yawning and empathetic stress, it doesn’t mean they don’t love, understand, or care about you. Like humans, all dogs are different, so they may show their empathy for you in other ways. 

Your dog does several things to show empathy because, simply put, they love you. Just like any true friend, your dog celebrates with you when you’re happy, and grieves with you when you’re sad. I don’t know about you, but I think I’m going to go give my dog a big hug now. 

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