When one person yawns, it’s not uncommon for someone else to follow suit. The same goes for laughing or smiling. This involuntary mimicry of another person is known as "emotional contagion," and is thought to be evidence for a basic form of empathy, as one person is able to experience what another is feeling. Now, it seems, dogs may do this too as they have been found to involuntarily mimic other dogs while playing. The researchers claim that this gives further proof that dogs are very likely empathetic.
We know that dogs can and do mimic their owners, as shown when canines “catch” their human's yawn. But the new research, published in Royal Society Open Science, has found that dogs do the same with other dogs in what the scientists think is an attempt at bonding. They found that while dogs were playing, they would copy within a split second certain behaviors, such as bowing their front legs while keeping their bums in the air, and what the researchers call a “relaxed open mouth” expression.
The researchers suspect that this might be a sign that the canines have an intrinsic form of empathy, allowing them to relate to and connect with other dogs. This could be the result of the domestication process, as humans selected dogs that were the most empathetic, although tests on wolves would be needed to examine this further.
While facial mimicking behavior is common in primates – such as chimpanzees, orangutans, and geladas – this is the first time that such rapid mimicry has been seen in dogs. The speed of the mimicking that the researchers observed suggests that the canines were doing it involuntarily, and thus that it's in a sense “built-in.”
For the study, the scientists filmed 49 dogs as they interacted and played in a dog park in Palermo, Italy, and analyzed their behavior. They also collected data from the owners on which dogs were most friendly, which ones lived near each other, and which played together on three or more occasions each week. As with humans who are more likely to mimic people they know and are socially close to, the dogs were also more likely to copy those other dogs who they play with on a regular basis. They also found that dogs who shared moments of rapid mimicry were more likely to play together for longer, suggesting that some form of bond had indeed been made.
Others, however, have urged caution with the interpretation of these results, and stated that more research is needed to really test whether dogs can understand another dog’s emotional state. Canines are exceptionally good at copying and learning new behaviors, but whether that translates into the fact that they can sense underlying emotions is another question.