By Nancy Carlson • Columnist • 

Creature comforts

I hope this doesn’t sound too arrogant, but there are times when I learn about some supposedly cutting edge piece of research and say to myself, “Well, of course. I knew that already.”

Such is the case with a study that came to my attention in the Sept. 21 edition of The Week magazine. The Week, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a compilation of articles, mostly about politics of (you guessed it!) the past week. You could compare it to Newsweek, back in the day when Newsweek was actually printed on paper. My husband is a political junkie and The Week is required reading in our house.

The very short (one paragraph) article that caught my attention shows, beyond a doubt, that dogs have a highly attuned empathy for human beings. Well, duh!

Researchers Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer of the Department of Psychology at the University of London recruited 18 dogs of various breeds and ages. They put each pooch in three different situations with two people, one at a time. One person was the dog’s owner and one was a complete stranger to the dog. Each person, at separate 20 second intervals, carried on a conversation, hummed or pretended to cry.

What Custance and Mayer observed was exactly what you and I could have told them would happen. The 18 dogs pretty much ignored the people when they were having a conversation and were slightly put off by, but mostly uninterested in, the humming. But when the human appeared to be crying, the dogs approached them, nuzzled them, and licked them, offering comfort as only a dog can. The dogs’ behavior, says Custance, shows how highly attuned dogs are to human emotions.

The doctor goes on to say that, since the dogs attempted to comfort the stranger every bit as much as they did their owners, the empathetic response appears not to be a Darwinian one. A purely pragmatic evolutionist might make an argument that the dog’s responds to his distressed owner is in his own self-interest. He does know where the kibble is kept and how to operate a can opener, after all, and if he continues being bereft he might forget it’s dinnertime.

But the dogs offered equally solicitous comfort to perfect strangers who had never given them so much as a biscuit, which indicates that the dog’s response really did offer comfort out of sincere, selfless concern rather than any kind of survival instinct.

Again, the study didn’t offer any new information to anyone who’s ever owned a dog.

In fact, their empathy for our emotions, along with their ability to change our emotions for the better, is one reason we have them — and walk them, worry about their nutritional needs, play with them, haul them to the dog park, and spend a considerable amount of our incomes on their health and welfare.

If we are feeling bad, dogs help us feel better, a lot quicker than psychotherapy and with fewer side effects than drugs.

And, come to think of it, they are pretty unique in this quality compared to other animals, at least in my experience. I know many of us have cats, birds, ferrets, etc., and find them to be very affectionate companions. But I don’t hear many stories of any of these creatures actually actively trying to comfort humans, while, research or not, we almost take this behavior for granted in our dogs.

Likewise, I have heard of animals from llamas to chickens being certified to do therapy work, but it’s hard to imagine any animal but a dog doing much that would ease my distress in highly emotional situations.

What I’m wondering is this: Sure, my dogs know when I’m sad and will cuddle with me with incredible sweetness for licks and pets. But could this be just one step in their evolutionary development?

Could some future dog of mine have enough empathy to know that I would rather sleep through the night than have him announce at 4 a.m. that the paper carrier has made his daily invasion? Could (be still, my heart) some future dog know that I value my remote controls and my cell phones as something other than chew toys, and refrain from destroying them?

One can only hope.

Nancy Carlson can be reached at

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