Have you ever looked into the eyes of your dog and had this feeling that he or she is staring right into your soul? That you are but an open book to your pet and that it understands you in a way no one else does-your highs, your lows, your bliss and your blows? Well, it’s not for nothing that a dog is called man’s best friend. Studies have shown, time and again, that dogs empathize with human beings to an extent which is equivalent to the empathetic experiences of a 2-4 year old child.
Research has found that dogs possess social and emotional qualities lacked by even the closest of our ancestors like apes or chimpanzees. Researchers believe this is because dogs have descended from wolves, which are highly social animals that like to function in groups. Domesticated dogs undergo biological changes like tameness which makes them empathize with humans more. Breeds which are trained to do complex tasks such as hunting or herding animals may give them a better understanding of the human psyche. This makes dogs empathetic not only to humans but to other animals as well. Once, I heard my 6 year old English Cocker Spaniel, Tinni, making a huge racket in the middle of the afternoon, running all over the house and barking like a maniac for no apparent reason. A little further investigation revealed that she was doing this in an attempt to bring to our attention the plight of a street dog who had fallen into the high drain behind our house, seemed unable to get out of it and was whining pitifully. Had Tinni not come to his rescue, he would not have survived. Another time, a 4 month old Labrador pup was brought to our house and Tinni immediately lay down in front of it and offered to suckle it.
Contagious yawning is a phenomenon which occurs only in those species which are capable of empathizing like humans and apes and, even then, within a single like species only. Dogs provide an exception to this rule. Pet dogs respond more to their owners yawns than to that of strangers and what’s more, they can even tell fake yawns apart from real ones and respond accordingly.
Lots of studies have been conducted regarding empathetic behavior in dogs. In one such experiment conducted by the Goldsmith University, UK, concerning 18 dogs, a situation was constructed with the dog’s owner, a stranger and the dog itself. The owner and the stranger were required, alternately, to laugh, hum in an odd way, or cry. The purpose was to see whether dogs sought comfort or, rather, sought to comfort. It was seen that 15 dogs responded to the person in distress, irrespective of whether that person was their owner or the stranger. This quite unequivocally proves that dogs are more likely to empathize and comfort a person rather than seek comfort for themselves. Gregory S. Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy in Atlanta, Georgia, has also found that dogs respond better to human stimuli than to inanimate objects in their surroundings like the ringing of a bell, that is to say, they like interacting with us just as muchwe like interacting with them. Thus, the emotional relationship shared between dogs and human beings is symbiotic in nature.
In fact, the wheel turns the other way too. In a study conducted on 240 subjects, all white men and women between the ages of 18-25, the subjects were asked to read a fictional news story involving several objects being beaten- a child, a 30-something adult, a puppy and a six year old dog. The responses of the subjects showed that they felt as much empathy towards dogs as they did towards children and more than they did towards human adults. Most people justify this feeling by the fact that dogs have no agenda, they care for you, love you and greet you with enthusiasm and affection irrespective of how you treat them. They never backstab you or conspire against you and their love for you extends beyond a plate of food, which is more than what can be said of humans these days.
The web is flooded with instances where a dog has risked its own life to save another one, human or otherwise. A dog in Chile braved a highway full of bustling traffic to drag its injured companion safely out of the harm’s way. Another canine hero in Melbourne risked a burning house to save four helpless kittens from the fire. There are countless examples of dogs risking their lives for their human masters. In a truly heroic feat, Roselle, a yellow Labrador sniffed her master to safety from the 78th floor of the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. Honey is an English Cocker Spaniel who had rushed out of an overturned SUV to get help and rescue her owners from within when she was merely 5 months old. Shana is a wolf dog who diligently dug out a tunnel in the snow that was trapping her elderly masters and dragged them back to their houses during a snowstorm. Brutis, a golden retriever and Zoey, a Chihuahua, both sustained snake bites while wrestling poisonous snakes away from young children. And, in probably the most incredible display of a dog’s heroics in a moment of their owner’s crisis, Belle the beagle literally bit 911 into her owner’s phone when the diabetic man had collapsed from a seizure. Apparently, she had been trained to bite down on the dial-pad in case of an emergency!
They say, when all else fails, hug a dog. There is now scientific evidence to prove that the comfort this gives you is not self-imagined but actually reciprocated in a better way than you could have hoped even of any fellow human being.