Research Article: Is your dog empathic? Developing a Dog Emotional Reactivity Survey

Date Published: February 13, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Flóra Szánthó, Ádám Miklósi, Enikő Kubinyi, Mária A. Deli.


Dogs’ seemingly empathic behaviour attracts general and scientific attention alike. Behaviour tests are usually not sufficiently realistic to evoke empathic-like behaviour; therefore we decided to ask owners about their experiences with their dogs in emotionally loaded situations. Owners from Hungary (N = 591) and from Germany (N = 2283) were asked to rate their level of agreement on a 1–5 Likert scale with statements about the reactivity of their dogs to their emotions and to other dogs’ behaviour. We created two scales with satisfactory internal reliability: reactivity to the owner’s emotion and reactivity to other dogs’ behaviour. Based on an owner-dog personality matching theory, we hypothesised that the owner’s empathy, as measured by the subscale on the cooperativeness character factor of the human personality, will correlate with their dog’s emotional reactivity in emotionally loaded situations. In addition we also examined how anthropomorphism, contagious yawning, attitude toward the dog are related to emotional reactivity in dogs as perceived by the owner. In addition we examined how owners rate dog pictures. We found that the scale scores were largely independent from demographic and environmental variables like breed, sex, age, age at acquiring, keeping practices, training experiences and owner’s age. However, anthropomorphic and emotional attitude of the owners probably biased the responses. In the German sample more empathic owners reported to have more emotionally reactive dog, as expected by the personality matching theory. More empathic owners reported to have fewer problems with their dogs and they rated a puppy picture as more cute in both countries. 62% of owners from Hungary and 36% of owner from Germany agreed with the statement “My dog is more important for me than any human being”. In Germany, more empathic owners agreed less with this statement and indicated that their dogs have a tendency for contagious yawning. Owners whose attitudes toward their dogs were anthropomorphic (agreed more with the statement that “My dog thinks like a child”), perceived their dogs as more reactive to their emotions. This findings highlights the importance of testing the attitudes of the respondents when they assess the personality and the emotions of animals. The criterion validity of the Dog Emotional Reactivity Survey should be confirmed by objective behavioural tests.

Partial Text

The dogs’ ancestor was originally a social species and during domestication they successfully integrated into human society. Dogs show special sociocognitive abilities (for example they are able to follow human communicative cues like pointing [1], gazing [2], they look at the owner when they cannot reach a required object [3]), and they display some “infantile” morphological features [4]. The human-dog relationship shares many common features with the parent-child relationship [5]. There are similarities in the attachment behaviour, and the relationship is asymmetrical and dependence-based in the case of both infants and dogs [6].

In this study we developed a survey to assess how owners perceive their dogs’ reactions to human and conspecific emotional behaviour. Previous studies have used behavioural observations by manipulating test situations to provoke behavioural reactions from the dogs. Although the dogs’ reactions may have several possible explanations which might clarify their behaviour, without the need for emotional contagion or empathy, results regarding dogs’ abilities to empathise with humans have been inconclusive. However, if asked, dog owners tend to believe that their dogs can empathize with them. Our study is the first owner questionnaire survey, which aimed at measuring dog’s emotional reactivity.




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