Are Dogs Empathetic? It Depends on the Individual Dog

iStock
iStock

You may be confident that your dog would save you from a burning building, but until recently, there wasn't much science to back you up. A new study reported by The New York Times takes a deeper look at the canine capacity for empathy. "Timmy’s in the Well: Empathy and Prosocial Helping in Dogs," published in the journal Learning & Behavior, suggests that the compulsion to help a human in distress may not be universal in dogs, but it is present in some.

For the study, researchers at Macalester College in Minnesota recruited 34 mature dogs. The test subjects varied in size and breed: The one thing they had in common was that they all had human owners. Their humans were shut away in a room with a window and a magnetically sealed door that could easily be opened with a nose or paw. To see what it would take for the dogs to break in, researchers told the owners to either hum, say "help" in a neutral tone, or say "help" while sounding distressed and crying.

The results indicate that not every dog has what it takes to be a hero. Only half of the dogs opened the door to reach their humans, and they were no more likely to act when their owners called for help than when they hummed a song.

But that doesn't necessarily mean your dog wouldn't feel empathy if it saw you in danger. When dogs did open the door, they reacted more quickly to the distressed sounds than the happy ones. And many of the dogs that stayed put still exhibited signs of stress when they heard their owners crying. In fact, they were even more anxious than the dogs who sprang into action, suggesting they may have been paralyzed by fear.

This reflects what other researchers have observed in humans: The people who acutely relate to the pain of someone in peril can be less likely to help them.

The study authors write:

"Based on this result, it appears that adopting another’s emotional state through emotional contagion alone is not sufficient to motivate an empathetic helping response; otherwise, the most stressed dogs could have also opened the door. One must both adopt that emotional state then suppress their own distress, as openers in the distress condition in contrast to non-openers seem to have done, before they are capable of providing help."

But if your dog doesn't come to your rescue right away the next time you cry out, don't automatically assume it's too overwhelmed with empathy to act. There were also dogs in the study that didn't show any stress at all or make any effort to open the door when faced with their crying owner.

[h/t The New York Times]

9 Colorful Facts About Goldfish

iStock.com, tunart
iStock.com, tunart

It may not be the cutest, cuddliest, or the most exotic animal to have in your home, but there’s something about the goldfish that appeals to pet owners around the world. These descendants of the Prussian carp were first domesticated in China 2000 years ago. Mutations produced fish with brilliantly colored scales, and after years of breeding, the pet store staple we know today was born. Here are some facts about the iconic pet worth knowing.

1. THE CLASSIC GOLDFISH WAS ALMOST YELLOW.

A yellow goldfish
iStock.com, Tomislav Brajkovic

Goldfish come in many shades, but it's the orange variety that's most closely associated with the species. This may not have been the case if it wasn't for a rule enforced during the Song Dynasty. By 1162 CE, goldfish ponds were en vogue, and the empress at the time had her own built and filled with the colorful creatures. She also forbade all non-royals from keeping fish that were yellow, the color of the royal family.

2. THE GOVERNMENT HELPED MAKE THEM POPULAR IN AMERICA.

Lots of goldfish in a tank
iStock.com, martinhosmart

Goldfish became the go-to fish for American pet owners in the late 19th century, and that’s partly thanks to Washington. According to The Atlantic, the U.S. Commission on Fisheries received an import of Japanese goldfish in 1878 and decided to give them away as a publicity stunt. D.C. residents could submit requests for glass bowls of goldfish, and at the program's peak, 20,000 pets were handed out a year. The campaign lasted through the 19th century, and at one point, a third of all households in the city owned a government-provided goldfish.

3. THEY'VE OCCUPIED THE WHITE HOUSE.

A veiltail goldfish.
A veiltail goldfish.
iStock.com, skydie

One notable D.C. resident to hop aboard the goldfish craze of the late 1800s was President Grover Cleveland. Among the hundreds of fish he had imported to Washington were Japanese goldfish. And he’s not the only president to keep a pet goldfish. After Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, a 10-year-old from New York sent him a goldfish named Ronald Reagan the Second with the note, "I hope you get better and to help you get better, here is a companion … Just feed him daily and he'll be fine." (White House staffers put the goldfish in a former jelly bean bowl.) President Nixon's dog Vicky became famous for chasing the goldfish in a White House pond.

4. THERE ARE OVER 100 VARIETIES.

A bubble-eye goldfish.
A bubble-eye goldfish.

It may be the most recognizable one, but the common goldfish isn't the only member of the species worth noting. Goldfish come in dozens of breeds that vary in color, shape, and size. Some varieties are known for the lumpy growths on their heads, while others are prized for their mottled scales. A few spectacular varieties include lionheads, pompoms, veiltails, bubble-eyes, and shubunkins.

5. YOU CAN TEACH THEM TRICKS.

Goldfish next to green plants
iStock.com, MirekKijewski

Having trouble teaching your dog to fetch? Maybe you'll have better luck with a goldfish. The species can be trained to perform tasks like recognizing colors, retrieving items, and swimming through mazes. The R2 Fish School offers a whole training kit, complete with a miniature sports field designed to transform your fish into a star athlete. One of their graduates currently holds the world record for knowing the most tricks of any fish.

6. THEY HAVE AN EAR FOR MUSIC.

A lionhead goldfish.
A lionhead goldfish.
iStock.com, gracethang

Partly because they're easily trained, goldfish make for popular test study subjects. In one such study conducted by Keio University, goldfish were taught to distinguish between the music of two classical composers. One group was trained to nibble on a ball of food when they heard pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach. A second group was taught to do the same but with Igor Stravinsky. When scientists swapped the composers the fish no longer showed interest in eating, suggesting they could tell the difference between the two styles.

7. GIANT GOLDFISH ARE A HUGE PROBLEM.

goldfish in a tank
iStock.com, freedom_naruk

Your goldfish may look cute and tiny in the tank, but in the wild, they can grow to monstrous proportions. Specimens living in Australia's Vasse River have the fastest growth rate of any goldfish species, reaching up to four pounds. Their growth spurts might be impressive if they weren't so disastrous for the environment: Goldfish are an invasive species and they're sometimes responsible for harming local animal populations and spreading disease. So if you have a sick fish at home, make sure it's really dead before you flush it. Or better yet, bury it in your garden (it's more dignified anyway).

8. THE OLDEST GOLDFISH LIVED TO BE 43.

Colorful goldfish in a tank.
iStock.com, SONGSAKPANDET

Buying a goldfish isn't supposed to be a lifelong commitment. You may hope for it to last a few years at the most, but with proper care and good genes, a goldfish can live to be much older. The world's oldest goldfish, a carnival prize named Tish, died in 1999 at the age of 43. According to his owner, the secret to Tish's longevity was occasional sunlight and being fed in moderation.

9. FISHBOWLS ARE BANNED IN PARTS OF ITALY.

Goldfish jumping between glass bowls.
iStock.com, CreativaImages

It's hard to think of goldfish without picturing the classic, glass fishbowl, but animal welfare groups say we should rethink the vessel as a pet habitat. According to the Humane Society, first-time fish owners should buy a tank of 20 gallons or more to give their aquatic companion suitable swimming space. In 2004, the northern Italian city of Monza banned pet owners from keeping fish in round bowls and Rome passed a similar law a year later.

This story first ran in 2017.

Animal Shelter Flooded With Inquiries After Sharing Photo of Dog Who Has Waited Four Years for Her Forever Home

Responsible Pet Care of Oxford Hills
Responsible Pet Care of Oxford Hills

October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month. If you're looking to add a furry new member to your family, a shelter in Maine wants you to consider one of its long-time residents. Ginger the Staffordshire bull terrier has lived at Responsible Pet Care of Oxford Hills for nearly four years, WESH 2 reports, and now the adoption center is using social media to find her a forever home.

On Thursday, October 18, Responsible Pet Care shared a photo of Ginger on its Facebook page. According to the shelter, she arrived as a stray in 2014, and she's since won over the hearts of staff members. "Ginger has been here 1,456 days," the post reads. "She needs the perfect home, not just any home. She is an amazing dog."

Ginger is an adult, 61 to 100-pound female who is spayed, house-trained, and up-to-date on all her shots. Responsible Pet Care warns that she does have some resource guarding issues, so she would need to be placed in a home without other pets or small children. The perfect adoptive parents may be an "older couple, single person, or someone who has an empty couch space needing to be filled," the shelter writes.

The post has since been shared 1700 times, and Responsible Pet Care has been flooded with messages from people looking to give Ginger a home. But she hasn't been adopted yet, so if you're able to visit the shelter in Maine to meet her in person, you can add your name to the list of interested adopters.

[h/t WESH 2]

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