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The Empathetic Abilities of Dogs

Two Great Pyrenees dogs touch noses.

Your car breaks down on the way to work, making you twenty minutes late for an important meeting. And then you realize you forgot your lunch. The day becomes more and more stressful, until you go home and see your beloved dog. It feels like your dog can sense your mood and knows how to make you feel better.

Your dog's ability to understand you is all in your head, right? Actually, scientists have good reason to believe that dogs can feel empathy.

They studied dog's empathetic abilities by looking to see if they experience emotional contagions. An emotional contagion is a basic form of empathy. It's when people experience the emotions of others that they're around or interacting with.

Seventy-seven percent of dogs showed evidence of rapid mimicry.

In humans and other primates, emotional contagion can be connected to rapid mimicry, which is when a subject automatically and quickly mimic others' facial expressions. Researchers wanted to test whether dogs showed evidence of rapid mimicry, so they recorded video of forty‑nine dogs of various ages playing at a dog park, and then analyzed their interactions.

They looked for dogs who, within less than one second, mimicked their playmate's posture or expression, such as play bowing, or imitating what researchers call a "relaxed open mouth posture." They found that seventy‑seven percent of dogs showed evidence of rapid mimicry.

The dogs who had at least one moment of rapid mimicry played together longer, which scientists say is further evidence of a connection to emotional contagion. And, like humans, the dogs were more likely to engage in rapid mimicry with playmates they already knew and played with regularly.

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Morrell, Virginia. "Dogs show empathy during play." Science, December 22, 2015.

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