There’s a reason we have service dogs instead of service hamsters.
They guide the blind, comfort the sick, smell our disease, detect seizures and even fight crime—what don’t they do? Dogs are basically superheroes, and their special power is empathy. In fact, they’re one of the most empathetic animals around, and we’ve got the scientific facts to prove it.
They share our yawns and our feelings.
Scientists consider contagious yawning a sign of empathy and have even found that humans do it more with the people they care about most. So it’s no surprise that when they studied contagious yawning with dogs, canines yawned more with their owners than strangers and could even tell when their owners were faking it.
They can smell how we feel and feel it too.
Everyone knows their dog comes running when they see or hear that someone’s upset, but what about when they smell it? In a study in which dogs were exposed to sweat from humans who had watched something scary, happy or neutral, the dogs actually experienced the emotion by smelling the odor and displayed higher heart rates and a need for reassurance when they sniffed the “scary” sweat.
They want to help everyone.
Ever had your dog lay his head in your lap when you’re upset? Cynical researchers used to think dogs were just seeking comfort for themselves until they put it to the test. They had dogs watch their owners and strangers take turns crying. If the dogs were only seeking comfort, they would react by going to their owners no matter who was crying. Instead, the dogs chose to comfort both the owners and the strangers when they cried, indicating that the action really is out of the goodness of dogs’ hearts.
In fact, sometimes they want to help too much.
In another study, dogs were separated from their owners by a glass door designed so that they could open it. The owner would take turns speaking, crying and humming, but the crying was the behavior that prompted dogs to open the door the fastest. In fact, dogs showing the most stress were the ones unable to open the door during the crying, indicating that they were showing empathy and were upset that they couldn’t help.
They even hold grudges for us.
Convinced your dog would take a tasty treat from anyone, even your worst enemy? Don’t be so sure. One study showed that dogs who witnessed a person being unkind to their owner would then refuse to accept food from that person.