Q: Please tell me it’s not my imagination that Barkley, my 3-year-old dog, has a great deal of empathy for me. When my back hurts, he lays his head on my lap and licks my hands. Does he know when I’m hurting, or is it all in my head?
A: Barkley senses your pain, and he’s doing what he can to comfort you. Much research documents similar behaviors and explains why dogs make such good therapy animals.
In one study, 75 pet dogs and 74 people listened to three sounds: a baby crying, a baby babbling and radio static. When levels of the stress hormone cortisol were measured, the dogs and humans reacted the same.
Cortisol levels shot up when the baby cried, but were normal at other times. Humans described the radio static as unpleasant, and the dogs flattened their ears and lowered their heads and tails, suggesting they felt the same.
In another study, 18 pet dogs heard three sounds made by a human family member and a stranger sitting six feet apart: crying, speaking and humming in a curiously unusual staccato cadence. The dogs ignored the speaking and humming but went to each person who cried, whether family member or stranger, and attempted to comfort them the way Barkley consoles you.
So, thank Barkley for his concern, because he really does care.
Lee Pickett, V.M.D. practices companion animal medicine in Pennsylvania. Contact her at email@example.com.