Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Just how much do our dogs empathize with us & other animals?

Just how much do our dogs empathize
with us and other animals?
Author, Bob McMillan

Dogs, writes Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, are the only animal
prone to make friends across the board with other species. In his
The Dog Who Couldn't Stop Loving,
he suggests that a wolf in the wild might cozy up to a rabbit —
but only to eat it. Many dogs will adopt a litter of rabbits and
nurture them. Masson believes dogs have uniquely benefited from
their thousands of years with man by learning empathy.

He says that man, likewise, has learned to be more loving and
empathetic by sharing his home and life with dogs. A lot more
patient, too, I’d say.

While he does draw on recent research, the book is mostly
anecdotal, Masson’s observations about Benji, his golden lab who
flunked out of blind guide dog school because he was too stubborn,
but who never met a person or other animal he didn’t love.

I’m behind in my reading. But it’s winter, a cold rain is coming
down and even Sully, my beagle mix, just stands at the door
scanning for summer. Nothing but mud. So, I get to read while the
dogs sack out in disgust. The book pile is big. Masson’s book came out in 2010.

Masson’s theory is pretty broad. After all, some other animals,
elephants and dolphins, say, become friends with particular dogs or cats,
and you can watch chimps with their “pet” dogs on YouTube.
On the other hand, some dogs, because of genetics or abuse, don’t
want to be friends with anyone. I empathize.

But Masson writes that canines are predisposed towards love.
What sets dogs apart from their wolf cousins is thousands of years
of living with man, and being molded by man through breeding and selection.

My Irish wolfhound, Finn, is who I think of when I read Masson’s
stories about Benji. I’ve lived with several dogs, but Finn constantly
makes my jaw drop. His heart matches his huge stature. He goes
well out of his way to make new friends. He thrives on it and
complains when I won’t let him cross a busy
street to greet another new dog. He bathes our old, cranky cat at night.
He rubs noses with donkeys, parrots and babies. He moves between
dogs when they play too rough. Finn looks at me disapprovingly
if I raise my voice to one of the other dogs. Sometimes I think
I’m on the wrong end of the leash.

But there’s Cuchulain, my previous giant hound, who barred
his sizable teeth when strangers approached. He flipped cats
off his spot in the couch. He chased squirrels and cows. He looked
at me disapprovingly when I raised my voice at him.
Every dog is different.

Still, there’s a growing body of research that suggests that dogs
are keenly tuned to our feelings and are, in fact, capable of altruism.
You’ve probably seen a bigger dog pull his punches when he plays
tug with a small one. Dogs show signs of a sense of fairness. They follow a moral code.

An article in New Science in 2000 looked at a study by researchers in
Budapest that found dogs mirroring the moods of their owners,
much like a human child is fearful if the parent is overtly afraid,
or is willing to explore new things as long as the
parent (or owner) was nearby. The stronger the bond, the more
likely the dog was to be in sync with the owner.

A similar study by the University of Porto in Portugal
found similar empathetic displays in dogs. They concluded that
dogs, being kin to wolves, are hardwired to cooperate with their “pack,”
and that dogs, as they learned complex skills
like herding and hunting with humans, may have gained a more complex
understanding of human thinking.

Which is what Masson was getting at. Dogs know us better than any other animal and
still like us. For at least the last 15,000 years and probably much
longer, we’ve lived side by side. We like horses and pigs, too. But a horse is
too big to live and sleep inside with you and a pig isn’t the first one you
want to cuddle after he’s rolled in the mud. For us, dogs are the perfect

Masson doesn’t ignore cats. He acknowledges that they’ve
evolved alongside man, too. They’re by nature solitary hunters.
After thousands of years of being fed, housed, groomed and petted
by man, they ... well, they tolerate us. But dogs,
sociable pack animals, crave our company and thank us for it.

The prevailing theory of human-canine evolution is that the
first domesticated dogs hung around human garbage heaps for
scraps and slowly lost their fear of people. Then they evolved
through training and selection into herd dogs and
hunting dogs. Where’s the love? Masson suggests it’s
a happy side-effect, and one of the main reasons we keep dogs
with us today even when we don’t raise herds or hunt.

The dog’s natural environment today? In our homes with the family.

Over time we’ve selected the dogs that didn’t bite, that
cooperated with us, that made us feel good with their antics and
loving companionship. They’ve tuned into our feelings for other
animals and they’ve learned there are advantages to
not gobbling down the family chicken or biting the family cow.

As they acquired empathy — an understanding of the feelings of others —
dogs have extended those insights to other species. And become
“dogs who couldn’t stop loving.”

As I was writing this, a friend e-mailed photos of a dachshund
raising a baby pig with her own litter of pups. I understood the
look of love and bliss in the mother’s eyes as she sheltered the
little pink pig. Many researchers caution against anthropomorphism,
reading human feelings into something an animal does.
Many still hold that animals have no feelings at all.

Bunk. When Finn plunks his food bowl down in front of me,
I know exactly what it means. He’s not commenting on the stock market.
When he head-butts me into a seat and nudges my arm around him,
I’m pretty clear on what that means, too. He
wants to cuddle. I empathize. And not just because he’s
too big to resist. His heart is.

Bob McMillan is lead paginator for the
Herald-Citizen and shares his home with giant hounds and cats.

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