Study Examines Empathy in Dogs

Posted by TF Oren

Ever notice how when your friend smiles, you immediately smile too?

Usually, this type of involuntary, split-second copycatting happens without your even realizing it. The phenomenon is called rapid mimicry, and it’s an important part of how we generate feelings of empathy for one another. It is how we share experiences and strengthen our social bonds.

Rapid mimicry has been well documented in humans and other primates. However, a study out of Italy’s University of Pisa has yielded some evidence that the building blocks of empathy are present not only in man, but also in man’s best friend.

In order to study rapid mimicry in dogs, the researchers first identified naturally occurring play behaviors, such as the play bow and the relaxed, open-mouth “grin.” Once they’d catalogued those behaviors, they moved the operation to a park in Palermo.

At the park, the researchers observed and videotaped 49 dogs at play. The dogs were of all shapes, sizes, and ages, and there were no restrictions on dogs’ play. Over a number of days, the researchers collected 50 hours of footage encompassing upwards of 200 different play sessions among the participating dogs.

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The researchers then pored over the footage. They looked for evidence of rapid mimicry in a play setting. When a dog exhibited one of the identifiable play behaviors, the researchers watched to see if the second dog copycatted the behavior within one second.

They found ample evidence of rapid mimicry among the dogs. What’s more, the footage revealed that the degree of rapid mimicry present in individual interactions dictated the length of the play sessions, or lack thereof. In other words, when rapid mimicry happened, the resulting play sessions lasted longer than did interactions in which there was no observable mimicry.

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The researchers also noticed that dogs that were already familiar with one another (owners confirmed the dogs’ degree of familiarity) exhibited more mimicry than dogs that were meeting for the first time.

“We found a gradient of rapid social mimicry according to the familiarity of dogs. Like humans, dogs are affected more by their friends,” said evolutionary biologist Elisabetta Palagi, one of the researchers.

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Palagi isn’t surprised by the findings. Dogs are a social species. As such, they’re highly tuned in to each other’s social cues, and even to human facial expressions. So, the fact that they might be capable of their own form of empathy isn’t earth shattering.

It is, however, valuable. Palagi believes the research could help those in the field of animal welfare develop more effective methods for psychologically evaluating and even rehabilitating dogs.


Study Examines Empathy in Dogs