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Have you ever been in a supermarket and heard a baby cry?  What was your reaction: did you turn to see where the baby was?  Did you feel irritated? Were you concerned for the child?  For most of us, when we hear the sound of a little one in distress, we pay attention and our body will release cortisol (a stress hormone) when we hear the cry, no matter what our age or parenting experience.  That’s because it is a hard-wired behaviour – and these factors demonstrate what is known as emotional contagion.

Just like smiling, laughter or yawning, emotions can also be contagious.  Emotional contagion means essentially, the spreading of all forms of emotion from one person (or animal) to another.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that dogs show physical signs of empathy when someone or another animal is in distress such as licking, nuzzling that individual and so on.  A recent study has delved into this subject area to investigate if dogs and humans show a similar physiological response to human infant crying.

The study published in Behavioural Processes was led by Min Hooi Yong and Professor Ted Ruffman from the University of Otago, New Zealand.  The team wanted to understand whether dogs would;

  • Show increased attention to a baby crying and babbling.
  • Find crying aversive compared to white noise.
  • Have increased levels of cortisol upon hearing a baby cry compared to hearing white noise.

The team worked with 75 dogs and their owners, exposing them to various sounds – a human baby crying, baby babbling and white noise.  Cortisol levels were measured in both the dogs and their humans before and after hearing the sounds.

So what were the results?

  • The scientists found that both dogs and humans had an increase in their cortisol levels only after listening to crying.  However, no changes occurred when exposed to the sounds of baby babbling and white noise.
  • The dogs displayed increased attention to both the baby crying and babbling sounds, but not to white noise.
  • Submissive behaviour was displayed by the dogs when exposed to the baby crying and white noise but not the baby babbling sounds.  This behaviour included; lowering of the dog’s body and head, the ears were held flat and back, the tail was lowered and sometimes held slightly between their legs or wagging rapidly side-to-side, the tongue protruded slightly, or the dog raised one leg in a hesitant or placating manner.

The team took into account other possible factors that might have influenced the dogsresponses at the time of testing.  These included; the dog’s neutered status and sex, acoustic features in the sounds (pitch and melody), and possible unintentional cuing from the dog’s owner. 

However, Yong et al concluded that the responses shown by the participants were as a result of distress caused from exposure to the crying.

What does this mean for dogs and owners?

This fascinating research by the team will no doubt be welcomed by pet owners, who have long suspected that Fido recognises when they are happy or sad.

Indeed, this is the first conclusive evidence that dogs experience a physiological response to human infant crying and display behavioural signs consistent to that of emotional contagion.  Yong says this presents the “first clear evidence of cross-species empathy”.

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