Dog empathy: a healing power

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Joe Dispenza

Dog empathy: a healing power

Written and verified by the psychologist GetPersonalGrowth.

Last update: 24 March, 2022

Science has managed to prove something that many already suspected: dog empathy. Dogs connect with people's emotional state almost immediately. But their ability goes beyond this fascinating connection, because they also show a manifest and selfless desire to give comfort, alleviate emotional pain and sadness.

We know that anyone who has one or more dogs will agree with the conclusions reached through the research carried out at the University of London on this topic. We know that these four-legged friends, wet nose and faithful gaze instantly tune in to our happiness and above all to our sufferings. And they don't hesitate for a second to lick our hand, to bring us their favorite toy, to sit on our lap like children trying to make us smile.

Do you think dogs go to heaven? I'm sure they get there before any man.

-Robert Louis Stevenson-

The empathy of dogs, this skilful reading of our moods, actually has even more surprising nuances, explained by this same research. We can see an example of this in the story of Benjamin Stepp, an Iraq war veteran who lives with a beautiful Labrador dog named Arleigh. This man has suffered a traumatic brain injury that every day causes sudden bouts of pain that immobilize his legs.

Arleigh perceives when these attacks are about to occur and immediately gets close to his master with a very specific purpose: to give him support, affection, reduce his anxiety and regulate his breathing so that the pain goes away as soon as possible. They have such a fascinating relationship that an ethologist, Natalia Alburquerque, is studying the case. It is known that dogs "smell" some metabolic changes in our body which result, for example, in drops in sugar, epilepsy attacks and, in this case, pain.

In any case, one of the aspects that surprises most of all is linked to the fidelity and altruism of these animals. They want nothing in return, their sense of protection and fidelity is so strong that the mere fact of giving relief and well-being gratifies them, satisfies them.

Emotional contagion in dogs: a primitive form of empathy

Ethologists and psychologists specializing in the animal world underline an important aspect. We cannot compare human empathy with canine empathy. In the latter case we speak rather of "emotional contagion", a very primitive form of empathy that according to Ted Ruffman, a psychologist at the University of Otago, it could be compared to that of a three-year-old.

It must also be remembered that empathy is a complex psychological dimension, in which very sophisticated cognitive processes come into play. In the case of dogs on the one hand there is the ease with which they read our facial expressions and our tone of voice, on the other hand their natural predisposition to be emotionally infected by our state of mind. In the event that this emotion of ours is negative, they undertake voluntary conduct to give help, support and well-being.

The latter aspect is undoubtedly a topic that has always fascinated experts. The reason dogs show such a strong bond with humans can be found in our ancestors, in our most primitive past. Edward Osborne Wilson is an American entomologist and biologist who explains some really interesting aspects in his numerous studies.

Dogs and men: an ancient bond

Humans have established a very strong emotional bond with dogs since ancient times, where our top priority was to survive. One of Dr. Edward Osborne's theories is that men whose social groups also included various dogs had a better chance of survival than those who did not have this type of bond.

  • Having one or more dogs in our first social settlements presupposed a greater union with nature, with its cycles, and therefore find even more resources with which to survive: water, hunting, edible plants… In fact, we have many cave paintings in which it is possible to see this type of interaction.
  • The company of these animals gave us in very ancient times a very important vital satisfaction, forming a bond in which many biological mechanisms were involved in turn.

For example, we know that looking a dog in the eye leads our brain to produce oxytocin, the hormone of affection, care and fidelity.

This constant interaction started since primitive times has consolidated a sophisticated relationship in which dogs do not take long to recognize our emotions and we, for our part, have learned to see them as members of our social groups. Dog empathy is a reality that has always accompanied us.

Just looking at a dog is enough to smile

Our dogs will never tell us to take things slower. They will not advise us to change jobs, to give our partner another chance or to get away forever from that friend who causes us more problems than anything else. They will never advise us anything, they will not judge us or criticize any of our decisions. Our dogs will simply be there, there with us, giving us the best of themselves without asking for anything in return.. This is precisely one of the behaviors that characterize canine empathy.

Strange as it may seem to us, this is what they have always done: living with us ever since our ancestors, the European hunters, began to tame the more docile wolf pups that roamed their settlements in search of food. We made them ours and they made us theirs, in an enduring and wonderful covenant. For this reason, most of us can't help but smile immediately when her gaze meets a dog's.

We recognize ourselves, our biological mechanisms interact again to produce positive emotional responses. They were our allies in the past and they are our therapeutic allies in the present. They calm us down, make us smile, activate our endorphins, our oxytocin, reduce loneliness and also our pain sensation ...

In conclusion, questioning the emotional power of dogs and their empathic ability is undoubtedly an unforgivable mistake. Because these are our anonymous four-legged heroes to whom we owe a lot: guide dogs, dogs that help children with disabilities or the elderly on a daily basis, and in general great friends that we adore and that we do not hesitate to consider an indisputable part of our family. .

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