A good definition of empathy is the ability to understand and even share the emotions of another. The bond between dogs and humans goes back into prehistory. We’ve established the fact that dogs feel empathy for humans with whom they have bonded. Researchers, as well as others, have noted dogs showing empathy toward one another and toward other species as well. An interesting question is whether or not other animals have the capacity for empathy.
Empathy among elephants, great apes and dolphins has been well documented. More recent research shows we can include ravens, rats, mice and prairie voles in that group as well.
Researchers at Konrad Lorenz Research Station in Australia found that “ravens console friends feeling distressed after fights.” Apparently they do this by beak-to-beak touching or beak-to-body touching or simply by sitting close to the stressed raven friend.
Prairie voles comfort each other after a stressful situation by grooming and close body contact. There are important lessons we humans can learn about empathy from watching animals.
Rob and I raised a houseful of children. As with most children, ours acquired pets over the years. Many and varied pets. As well as the usual variety of dogs and cats, we managed to open our home to rabbits, hamsters, snakes, fish, turtles and a large, lovely laboratory rat the children named Ratso Rizzo.
All the animals were fun and certainly we, children and adults, learned something of value from each of them.
After our last child left home and I retired, we decided to bring home a beautiful golden retriever puppy we named Saxon. This was the first “personal” dog I’d ever owned. Family dogs we’d had by the kennel-full. There was even that memorable year when Rob raised beagles. They were cute and lively but they quickly bonded with Rob, not with me. The children they could leave or take.
Running around the yard together, catching a ball, following the children as they played in the nearby woods building forts and dams was fun for the dogs but when the kids were elsewhere they didn’t seem to miss them much. Rob was their hero. He was the one who trained the dogs, took them hunting. I fed them and cleaned up after them. They considered me part of the furniture and that was about it.
Now, of course, we have Pierre, who has bonded with both of us, but Pierre is a dog of a different hue. This large golden doodle follows me everywhere, inside and out of the house. Sometimes I feel like we’re attached with Velcro, but he also insists on having his own way in most things. Pierre is not, nor ever will be, a pleaser. A situation where we could perceive any evidence of empathy in Pierre had not come up — until this spring.
Rob works outside most days during spring allergy season and when he comes inside there’s a lot of loud sneezing. Pierre reacts to Rob’s sneezes in a strange way.
For example, we’ll be sitting in a room quietly reading the paper, with Pierre asleep on the floor. When Rob suddenly emits a volley of loud sneezes, Pierre immediately runs to Rob, looks up at him anxiously and whines. He gets as close as possible to Rob, sometimes putting his head in Rob’s lap. This happens day after day, sneeze after sneeze.
Does Pierre interpret sneezing as stress or pain? Does the dog see Rob as his meal ticket and wonders if he is about to expire? Whatever his interpretation, it’s nice to know Pierre cares enough to comfort.