Emotional Contagion: Dogs Mimic Their Pals' Emotions, New Study Suggests


Three researchers from the University of Pisa in Italy discovered that dogs engage in what they call an "emotional contagion" and rapid mimicry with their playmates. The research findings suggest that canines might be capable of empathy.

Copycatting is common among humans and various primates. When one smiles, the other often smiles in return. An "emotional contagion" is when one's emotions elicit a change in another being. This chain reaction can be transferred to a third being and so on.

Emotional Contagion

The "emotional contagion" is not just about copying one's emotion or expression. Scientists describe this behavior as capable of changing the mood state of another being.

One best example would be playing peek-a-boo with a baby. When someone does the peek-a-boo gesture, the baby often smiles as a response. This makes the adult smile in return and both the baby and the adult feel a surge of happiness. Experts believe that this behavior enables a group of people to form a bond.

The Italian researchers sought to discover if canines also engage in an emotional contagion with one another. The research was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science on Dec. 23.

Canine Mimicry

The research team filmed the interactions of 26 female and 23 male dogs at a community dog park. The canine participants ranged between three months to almost six years.

Two types of mimicry were observed. The first one is when dogs bow using their front legs. The second one is when dogs open their mouths as a non-threatening gesture.

"I think that natural conditions are extremely important if we want to reveal a phenomenon as really it is," said University of Pisa's sociobiologist and lead study author Elisabetta Palagi.

The team found that the dogs who seem to be well acquainted with one another mimicked each other the most, while those that didn't know each other well mimicked each other less.

In the study, the researchers defined "mimicking" as the act of copying the expression or action of another dog within one second. Findings showed 76 percent of the canine participants filmed were involved in a various degrees of mimicking. They also noted that dogs who copied most actions of another played together much longer. The findings suggested that canines are capable of feeling a certain degree of empathy towards one another.

Palagi said that more research should focus on the appearance of the same rapid mimicry among wolves. This will determine if the emotional contagion among dogs was created during the domestication process.

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