/ Psychology

Why Dogs Really Feel Your Pain

Published September 4, 2012 in Dr Peto Says, What's New |
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Dogs may empathize with humans more than any other animal, including humans themselves, several new studies suggest.

The latest research, published in the journal Animal Cognition, found that pet dogs may truly be man (or woman’s) best friend if a person is in distress. That distressed individual does not even have to be someone the dog knows.

“I think there is good reason to suspect dogs would be more sensitive to human emotion than other species,” co-author Deborah Custance told Discovery News. “We have domesticated dogs over a long period of time. We have selectively bred them to act as our companions.”

“Thus,” she added,” those dogs that responded sensitively to our emotional cues may have been the individuals that we would be more likely to keep as pets and breed from.”

Custance and colleague Jennifer Mayer, both from the Department of Psychology at the University of London Goldsmiths College, exposed 18 pet dogs — representing different ages and breeds — to four separate 20-second human encounters. The human participants included the dogs’ fur parents as well as strangers.

During one experimental condition, the people hummed in a weird way. For that one, the scientists were trying to see if unusual behaviour itself could trigger canine concern. The people also talked and pretended to cry.

The majority of the dogs comforted the person, parent or not, when that individual was pretending to cry. The dogs acted submissive as they nuzzled and licked the person, the canine version of “there, there.” Custance and Mayer say this behaviour is consistent with empathic concern and the offering of comfort.

As for what could be going on in the dog’s head, yet another recent study, published in PLoS ONE, showed how the brains of dogs react as the canines view humans. In this case, the researchers trained dogs to respond to hand signals that meant the pups would receive a hot dog treat. Another signal meant no such treat was coming.

The caudate region of the dogs’ brains, an area associated with rewards in humans, showed activation when the canines knew a tasty food treat was coming.

“These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals,” lead researcher Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy, explained. “And these signals may have a direct line to the dog’s reward system.”

In that study, the reward was food, but Custance and Mayer think canines over the thousands of years of domestication have been rewarded so much for approaching distressed human companions that this may somehow be hardwired into today’s dogs.

The phenomenon in some cases could even have a subconscious element. Consider what happens when a person yawns and a dog is in the room.

“Dogs show contagious yawning to human yawns,” Matthew Campbell, an assistant professor in Georgia State University’s Department of Psychology, told Discovery News.

He said that “we have selected dogs to be in tune with us emotionally.”

Custance and Mayer next hope to determine how empathetic wolves may be.

“It would be interesting to see how wolves who have been raised in human households would respond if they took part in our experiment,” Custance said. “Would they behave like domestic dogs or show less response to a crying human? It would be fascinating to find out.”

Adapted from Discovery Channel

Heartbreaking Animal Mourning Rituals

Published August 1, 2012 in Love For Earthlings, What's New |
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The complex social structures of gorillas and their higher level of thinking makes it easier for them to form strong connections to their children and pack members. As a result, gorillas have been recorded exhibiting sadness and concern for their dead, sometimes even burying the bodies.

One heartbreaking example is Gana, who could not accept the death of her child. Gana carried the infant’s body with her around a German zoo for days, trying to restore life to it multiple times, and protecting it from zookeepers.


Elephants are extremely emotional animals, easily bonding with other elephants or the humans who care for them. These deep attachments can lead to terrible grief when a loved one dies.

Elephants are known to shed tears, bury their dead, go into depression and starve themselves in reaction to a loss. One elephant at an Indian zoo was so distraught over the death of her friend that she refused to eat or drink, leading to her own death.


Geese are very serious about commitment, devoting themselves to one bird for a lifetime. After a goose dies, its mate will undergo a rigorous mourning process, including weight loss, separation from the flock and submission to other geese.

Eventually, the goose will find a new mate in another bird that has lost its partner. One goose made an unusual choice for her new mate, choosing to leave her flock and bond with humans working at the zoo.


Sperm whales form close relationships with the members of their pods, even following those who stray from the group so they would not be alone. If a member is removed from the group through death, the remaining whales become mentally agitated for long periods.

Research shows that this turmoil is so far-reaching that the teeth of the animal will become weaker during these periods.


Scientists have found that baboons’ physiological response to death is very similar to humans, with both seeing an increase in stress hormones called glucocorticoids. To lower glucocorticoid levels and cope with loss, baboons also respond like we do: they seek out friends.

The animals will expand their social circles and spend more time with other baboons, engaging in activities like grooming.


Stereotypes say that cats are loners, but observation has shown that many felines grieve when they lose their owner or cat friend. This process can include running away, not eating, excessive meowing and house-training mistakes.

One example of an inconsolable cat is Muschi, who lost her unlikely bear friend, Mausi. Zookeepers said the cat refused to leave the bear’s old exhibit, and would not stop meowing for her companion.


Sea lions have been seen to cry out in anguish when their babies are taken by predators. A sea lion will continue wailing in mourning after its child has died. The same behaviour has also been seen in sea lions dealing with companions taken by hunters.


The bonds a human can form with a dog are deep, and research indicates that canines feel them too. Studies show that dogs can feel grief, especially after the loss of an owner. The pets will react to their emotions by not eating, sleeping more than usual and generally being lethargic.

Some dogs will also show a lack of acceptance that an owner has died, and will try to stay with him or her. This was seen with a dog that belonged to a slain Navy SEAL. The dog, Hawkeye, refused to leave the side of his owner’s coffin during the funeral.


Chimpanzees’ close genetic makeup to humans means they get some of our faults as well. The primates are known to become distressed when they lose close members of their groups. The animals will often cry, refuse food, mope and separate themselves during grieving periods.

One poignant example of chimpanzee mourning was the case of Dorothy. When the older chimpanzee died and was taken away from her rescue centre, all the other chimps gathered seemingly to say their goodbyes and to watch the body leave.

Excerpted from Animal Planet