Study Finds Humans Have More Empathy For Dogs Than Other People

The internet is filled with cute videos of kittens and puppies doing mundane things that transform into a feast of entertainment. Humans are continually enamored by the cuteness of their pets. Researchers in Japan showed that looking at cute animals can be beneficial for you.

Whenever we watch a movie that has a dog, we are terrified that it might get hurt or even die. Ever since we domesticated dogs, we have continued to breed them into numerous types for work and play. They have been with us throughout significant parts of our history, both modern and ancient. Their presence in our lives forces us to ask hard questions and expect honest answers. The big question here is why do we empathize with these fluffy and adorable furballs? That is the question that researchers from Northeastern University Boston and the University of Colorado Boulder wanted to find out when they presented their work in the journal – Society and Animals.

The Origin Of The Domestic Dog

The first undisputed fossil record of a dog’s remains buried with humans was dated to about 14,700 years ago. There are fossil records of dogs and humans from as far back as 36,000 years ago, but those remain disputed. This timeline indicates that dogs were domesticated when humans were still hunter-gatherers, which was before agricultural developments.

Watercolor tracing made by archaeologist Henri Breuil from a cave painting of a wolf-like canid in France dated 19,000 years ago. Image from Wikipedia

Exactly how dogs were domesticated remains unclear because of the time that passed and unclear fossil and genetic records. The theory that most people are aware of is that humans adopted dogs into their groups because they realized that they could help with hunting like they do with their own pack of wolves. And over time, humans selectively bred wolves for traits that meshed better with humans. These traits ranged from friendliness, understanding human commands, intelligence, and any others that made working with humans easier. They also would have worked to remove some bad traits, like excessive aggression towards humans and any other feral/wild behavior. Over time, the domesticated wolves would become so genetically separate from the wilder selves that they would become an entirely new species, which we call dogs.

A more recent theory posits that we did not domestic dogs because they domesticated us. This theory operates on the undisputed records of dogs being domesticated during hunter-gatherer period of human life. During that time, humans were aggressive hunters that removed any competition they faced when hunting. This meant that they killed out most large predators that hunted the same prey as they did or shared the same hunting grounds.

This included wolves and so humans regarded wolves as a threat to their survival and would not have engaged them for anything other than killing. Also, humans were successful hunters and did not need additional help from wolves because they would have to share their food and use additional resources to take care of them, which would not be beneficial to humans.

The only reason, the theory states, for dogs to become domesticated is for wolves to approach humans rather than the other way around. A friendly wolf might have approached human settlements to pick off their scraps. Since the wolf was friendly and not aggressive, humans probably left it alone. This resulted in the wolf breeding and producing more friendly wolves, which continued over time to the point where humans relented and adopted them into their groups. And similarly to the other theory, wolves were then bred for certain traits and over time, became the dogs we know and love.

The Dog Empathy Research

Jack Levin and his team wanted to understand the levels of empathy given to humans and dogs in situations that were life threatening to both. The researchers selected 256 undergraduate students and gave them false news reports of a brutal attack on a 1-year-old baby or an adult versus a puppy or an adult dog. They had the students look at the comparisons and rate their levels of empathy towards each subject that was attacked. The researchers found that the students had about the same level of empathy towards the baby, the puppy, and the adult dog. They also found that empathy levels towards adult humans were less than the other three. The main reason that adult humans were less empathized with was that they are older and viewed to be less vulnerable and capable of taking care of themselves in dangerous situations.

Whereas in babies and puppies, they are more vulnerable because they cannot take care of themselves and depend on others to survive. The reason that adult dogs were viewed with similar empathy as babies was that they are considered to be babies and vulnerable to humans. Dogs ultimately evolved to be cute and adorable to humans, which is a similar sentiment we have towards babies, so we see them in a similar light: as something to be nurtured and taken care of. The researchers also found that women were more empathic towards the news versus men. This makes sense because as a society, women are raised to be more in touch with their emotions and to express it whereas, men are raised to be more suppressive of their emotions.

A Labrador retriever. One of the most popular dog breeds in the United States. Image from Wikipedia

The researchers wanted to do this because of a viral news about a dog that needed help otherwise it would face euthanasia. The dog faced euthanasia because it mauled a young child. The news of the dog led to 40,000 likes on facebook versus only 500 for the boy. The researchers were curious as to why this disparity occurred. Similar disparities occur in advertisements and eliciting attention because those areas use pictures of dogs looking vulnerable instead of humans to be more effective.

These kinds of research are important because they help us to understand the relationship we have with domestic animals and why they play such important roles in society. As we continue to research these areas, we will build a better understanding of how to continue to build a better relationship with animals, domestic and wild.

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