People often report that it seems their dogs are reading their emotional states and responding in much the same way a human would, offering sympathy and comfort when it is needed or joining in their joy when there is cause for celebration. Such was the case with Deborah, an acquaintance of mine who told me the following story. Deborah had just gotten off the phone after learning that her sister's husband had died. Stunned by the news, she sat on the sofa and found herself wiping tears from her eyes while she tried to deal with her sadness. Deborah told me, “At that moment, Angus [her Golden Retriever] came over to me and laid his head on my knee and began to whimper. A moment later he quietly walked away and then returned with one of his favourite toys and softly put it in my lap and then gently licked my hand. I knew he was trying to comfort me. I believe that he was feeling my pain and hoping that the toy, one which made him happy, might also help me to feel better.”

Such stories involving dogs are quite common and at face value seem to indicate that dogs are showing empathy for their owners. Generally speaking, empathy can be defined as the ability to put oneself into the mental shoes of another being and to understand and even share his or her emotions and feelings. Although most dog owners are quite sure that their dogs have empathy for their feelings, if you make that suggestion to a group of psychologists or behavioural biologists, it is more apt to start an argument than to bring nods of agreement.

The skepticism you might get from this group of scientists does not have to do with the question of whether dogs have emotions or even whether dogs can read human emotions and attach them to things or situations; rather the issue is which emotions dogs possess and whether a fairly complex emotional response, such as empathy, is one that dogs actually experience. There is a consensus that the mind of a dog is very similar in capacity and behaviours to the mind of a human two to three-year-old. Human toddlers are good at reading emotions and attaching them to things. A research report published in the journal Developmental Psychology a few years back described a study by psychologist Betty Repacholi who was then at the University of California at Berkeley. She was working with toddlers aged 14 to 18 months. In the study she arranged a room with two boxes and had the child's parent look in each box while the child watched. When looking in one box the parent expressed a very positive and happy emotion but when looking in the other box the parent expressed disgust. When the child was later allowed to explore the room, the vast majority of the children went to the box that had been attached to the happy expression and avoided the box that was associated with the emotion of disgust.

Recently, virtually the same general research method was used to test whether dogs can read human emotions and act appropriately. A team of researchers from the University of Milan (Isabella Merola, Emanuela Prato-Previde, M. Lazzaroni, and Sarah Marshall-Pescini) also used two boxes, each containing a toy. In one condition the dog's owner looked into one box and simulated a happy expression, sounding very enthusiastic and interested and saying (in Italian) things like “oh nice, really nice” using tones that were high pitched, musical, and positive. While looking at the other box the owners were told to sound as if they had witnessed something shocking and fear provoking. This resulted in something like an exclamation of, “Oh! How ugly!” spoken in as tense a tone of voice as the dog owners could manage. In addition, the owner was told to act out the emotions using body language, such as crouching more toward the box when the positive emotional expression was being made and jumping back from the box when expressing the negative emotion. Afterwards the dogs were released and allowed to explore the room. 81 percent of the dogs went to the box associated with the happy expression, which shows that the dogs clearly recognize their owner's emotional expressions. It also shows that dogs attach those emotions to whatever object or situation that their owner is focused on.

Empathy, though, is more complex than basic emotions such as happiness, fear or disgust. Remember that the mind of a dog is very similar to the mind of a human two to three year old. Although there is some data suggesting that human toddlers start to show the beginnings of empathy sometime around their second birthday, it is quite primitive at that age and many scientists think that clear evidence of empathy doesn't really show up until the child is four years old or more. So empathetic behaviour would, of course, require a more advanced mental capacity than what is usually credited to canines. Because of this many scientists tend to believe that something simpler is going on, namely “emotional contagion.” This is where an individual responds to the emotions of another without fully understanding what that individual is feeling. A simple example is when, in a nursery, one infant starts to cry and this causes all of the other infants within earshot to do the same. Those other infants are not showing empathy but rather are responding to and adopting the first child's emotional state without understanding why. Thus these researchers suggest that when your dog sees your emotional distress they are in effect “infected by it” and in response to their own feelings they come to nuzzle their owner. Supposedly the dog’s aim is not to comfort their human companion, but rather to gain comfort for themselves. Some other scientists are even more cynical, not even crediting the dog with reading the person's emotion, but rather suggesting that it is a response to seeing a person acting in an unusual way and the dog is coming over to sniff and paw at them out of curiosity.

Two psychologists, Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer from Goldsmiths College in London, decided to see if dogs really had empathy when their owners were in emotional distress. They modified a procedure which has been successfully used to measure empathy in human toddlers. The setup is very simple: the dog's owner and a stranger sat about six feet apart and engaged in several activities while the whole thing was filmed. In turn, each individual would speak, hum in an unusual staccato manner or pretend to cry.

The critical condition, of course, was the crying. These researchers reasoned that if the dog was showing empathy he would be primarily focused on the person who was crying rather than on himself and engage in attempts at comforting or helping. The expectation was that the empathetic dog would nuzzle, whine, lick, lay his head on the person's lap, or offer similar comforting behaviours.

Now here is the trick that allows us to sort out what is actually happening: if the dog is simply upset by his owner's crying, he should go to his owner hoping to gain some comfort for himself. However, suppose that the stranger is crying. If the dog has no empathy and is merely responding because of emotional contagion, the dog should still feel distressed, but should not seek solace from the stranger with whom he has no emotional bond; rather, he would be expected to go to his owner for comfort in this situation. What the researchers found was that the dog not only approached and tried to comfort his crying owner but also approached the crying stranger, seeming to offer sympathy and support much in the way that humans display empathy for each other.

The researchers also reasoned that if the dog’s approach to people was principally motivated by curiosity, any relatively uncommon behaviour, such as the strange humming behaviors, should cause some reaction. This did not happen; when the owner or the stranger hummed in an unusual manner, the dogs might look at them but did not approach and certainly did not seem to be offering any comfort.

The conclusion seems obvious and perhaps clear enough to convince some of the more skeptical scientists who have been unwilling to allow that dogs might have much the same emotional responses as a young human child: in the same manner that young humans show empathy and understanding of the emotions of others, so do dogs. Furthermore, we appear to have bred our dogs so that they not only show empathy, but also show sympathy, which is a desire to comfort others who might be in emotional distress.