News Flash: Dogs Are Caring, Empathic

We’ve all experienced the phenomenon of the contagious yawn; when seeing someone wide-jawed provokes the same, uncontrollable reaction in ourselves.

A new study published last week contends that humans are not alone in experiencing this action/reaction sensation, and that our best friends and four-legged hunting companions are often affected by the same idiosyncrasy.

The study, performed at Birkbeck, University of London, found that 72 percent--or 21 of the 29 dogs tested--yawned after watching the researcher yawn. Moreover, the rate was significantly higher than the 45 to 60 percent rate reported in humans and the 33 percent yawn factor documented in chimps.

Yawn

That’s all well and good, but what the hell does it mean?

Don’t look now, but here comes the psychologist with the answer.

Earlier research conducted by Gordon Gallup Jr., a psychologist at the State University of New York at Albany, suggests that people who are more susceptible to contagious yawning tend to be more empathetic toward others.

Empathy, or the capacity to grasp what someone else feels, knows or intends, may depend on some of the same neural circuitry triggered by contagious yawning, the psychologist says.

So, that brings us back to our retrievers, setters and hounds.

Do the results of the new UK study demonstrate that our dogs are capable of a rudimentary form of compassion, sympathy and understanding?

The data are “pretty compelling,” say the researchers.

“If it can be replicated it strongly suggests dogs may have a primitive empathic capacity,” Gallup says.

For most hunters and dog lovers, the contention that our canines feel compassion toward us is not news. And we sure don’t need to read about it in a science journal or hear it from a university psychologist to know it’s a fact.

Further, if we were to believe the yawning study results, it would indicate that dogs have a much higher capacity of sympathy and understanding to humans than do humans to each other.

But, we already knew that, too.