You know how it goes, you’ve had the day from hell, you’re worn out and worn down. You’ve had bad news, are ill, sad or just plain fed up. Whatever the reason, you’ve had enough and you’re feeling very sorry for yourself. Negative thoughts and worries are playing on a loop through your head. You’re wrapped up in your preoccupations. Alone.
Until a wet nose is pushed under your hand, or a familiar weight leans against your leg, or a ball is unceremoniously dumped in your lap. Is your dog saying…Wake up, snap out of it I want to play now? Or…Hi, whatya doin? You OK? Many dog guardians will contest that their dog knows when they’re feeling down and will seek to reassure and comfort them. Or use their goofy playfulness to distract them out of a self-indulgent funk. Can this be true? Are our dogs so in tune with our feelings that they seek to soothe our troubles in this way? Are dogs empathetic?
Looking for Evidence
Do a quick Google search and you’ll see there have been scientific studies on this subject, and as often happens, research of this kind is usually summarised into bite-sized abstracts and further decimated into headline-grabbing claims via the popular press. Here’s one such example; ‘Your Dog Really Does Care If You’re Unhappy’. New research shows that dogs respond to their owners unhappiness. Here’s the actual title ‘Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to distress in humans: An exploratory study’. The key words here are ‘respond’ and ‘empathy like’. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of empathy is, ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. Do dogs have the ability to be empathetic? Would we even want them to have this sort of capacity?
Dogs In the Midst of Horror
In the aftermath of the horrible mass shooting that took place in Las Vegas on Sunday 1st October, 2017, there were numerous news items about the LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs which were flown into Vegas from several states. It was a welcome, feel-good story in the wake of a shocking, tragic and terrifying event. Beautiful golden retrievers were photographed at the airport, in the hospitals and at memorial sites around the city. Victims attested to the comfort and solace that the dogs brought them. They spoke of the connection they made to the dogs in the midst of tremendous pain.
Lean on Us
This form of therapeutic aid is just one of the many ways dogs are now trained to help us. From guide dogs for the blind to PTSD assistance dogs, to community dogs helping kids with their reading, there are now thousands of organisations around the world training and placing service and therapy dogs.
What is best practice in the selection, training and allocation of assistance and therapy dogs? How best to safeguard these dogs welfare?
Digging into Doggie Science
Before we answer those questions let’s delve a little deeper into our scientific study, did they demonstrate that dogs really care about our emotions or is something else going on? The study used a stranger, and the dog’s owner crying and a different/novel sound; in this case loud humming as well as periods of just chatting. The study took place in the dog’s own home. Each exposure to crying lasted for 20 seconds; the majority of the dogs responded to the crying episodes involving both the stranger and their owners. They nuzzled and licked the crying subject. Both the owners and strangers were instructed not to respond to the dog’s attention. The majority of the dogs’ body language remained calm and submissive when they responded to the crier. The dogs appeared to respond to the stranger as consistently as to their owner and in the same manner; in other words they did not appear to seek reassurance by going to their owners when the stranger cried. Instead they approached and interacted with the stranger and reacted in the same ways as to their owner. In summation: does this prove a true empathetic response to distress in humans?
The study used a relatively small number of dogs, and it didn’t specifically ask whether the dogs had witnessed their owners crying in the past. Or explore whether the dogs would be able to discern a difference between genuine crying or the acting used during the study. If the sound of crying was a novel one to the dogs, did their responses indicate curiosity rather than upset and empathy? However, we could also surmise that loud humming is also a novel sound and the dogs responded more to crying than humming, so is our apparent distress the motivating factor in the dog’s attention? Over and beyond curiosity?
Many animal behaviourists believe that dogs have an emotional and mental capacity of a 2-3 year old human. Children of this age have developed a range of emotions and it’s impressive to think that our dogs have a similar number, but fully developed empathy is not an emotion that readily comes to mind when thinking about a 2/3 year old child. So what might be happening instead?
The first time your dog seemed to respond to your low mood what was the feedback they got from you? Oh baby you know I’m sad? Give me a big hug. You need a snack! Who’s the best boy?
Dogs are social beings, and they easily demonstrate social contagion; try yawning when your dog’s around, watch and wait, they’ll surely yawn in response very soon after you do. If your body language elicits responses from either other humans or your dog that they’d like to get in on, that’s social contagion. Happy? Yay jump around, your dog will probably join in. He doesn’t know you just got a raise, he’s just happy, because it got exciting in here and you’re smiling at him. Likewise when we, his family, is experiencing stress, anxiety, anger and discord, he’ll feel it too. This is not empathetic in the way that we can put ourselves in another’s position and sympathise but rather a reflection of feelings and atmosphere.
This is not to devalue the range and expression of feelings our dogs have, nor their ability to read us, reflect us, nor console us. But rather, celebrate that this difference in empathetic range gives some dogs an amazing capacity to help us emotionally as well as physically in so many diverse ways.
Social contagion is described as a primitive form of empathy. Two other studies looked directly at dogs’ stress reaction (cortisol measurement), to sounds of distress in both dogs and humans. The first to dogs exposure to the distress of another (closely bonded dog) and the second to listening to a human baby cry (stranger). The results showed elevated levels of the stress hormone in both cases.
These studies did not rely on social contagion as the sounds were introduced remotely without the influence of the sound sources being physically present and in the absence of clues from observers.
If social contagion is not as influential a factor in these studies then what explains the cortisol elevation? While this may not be an empathetic response as we may experience it, it is an indicator of some commonality in our responses to hearing a baby in distress.
How then might dogs whose job is to be around, recognise, interrupt and redirect emotional disturbance, anxiety and physical agitation in their humans, cope with this frequent and sustained level of exposure?
I spoke to Hannah Wright, Assistant Training Manager at Support Dogs. Support Dogs is a UK-based charity which sources, trains and places dogs with individuals and families as autism assistance dogs, seizure alert dogs and disability assistance dogs.
In relation to their work with children with autism I wanted to find out more about how the dogs are selected, the training that both the dogs and their host families undergo and the particular qualities they look for when placing autism assistance dogs.
I found out that Labrador and Lab/retriever crosses are the breed most commonly used for this work. Rather than having their own breeding programme, these dogs are often sourced from other assistance dogs’ organisations such as Guide Dogs for the Blind. Where they may not have exactly the right skills or character mix for all the guiding tasks, they can and do prove to be exactly the right match for autism assistance.
Where dogs trained for physical disability assistance can come from a variety of different sources including rescue centres, the autism assistance dogs being referred from other assistance charities ensures that there their entire history is already known. They have also received substantial training and assessment in their previous puppy homes and organisations before being considered by Support Dogs.
I asked Hannah what type of character makes a great autism support dog. She explained that it was hard to find exactly the right mix as they need to be confident in all situations both environmentally and socially, so wherever they are and whoever they’re with the autism assistance dog remains calm and friendly. Additionally they need to have no aversion or fear to any sounds or sudden movements; they also need to seek and enjoy physical contact with no sensitivities or avoidance to handling. A tall order then to find dogs with this outstanding temperament. The child’s parent is the sole handler, so the child themselves is not expected to direct the dog, rather the parent is trained in how to do this. The parent/handler undergoes extensive training and the process of assessment; training and placement takes an average of 18–24 months. A trainer will work in the home at the time of placement and following placement initial monitoring can be as frequent as six times in two weeks; thereafter there is a six month review and ongoing aftercare for the length of the placement.
Under the direction of the parent/handler the autism assistance dog is trained to perform specific actions to help the child. These could be a lap rest or leg nudge to interrupt repetitive behaviours for example. When outside the home, dog and child may be connected with a belt fixed to the dogs harness, this in itself can help to make the child feel more secure. Additionally the dog can be taught to brace against the child if they have an urge to bolt as can sometimes happen.
Just being in the presence of the dog helps to ease the sensory overwhelm autistic children may feel outside their own home. The dogs are trained through positive reinforcement methods using both classical and operant conditioning. In the longer term, living and working with the dogs can bring about profound improvement in confidence independence and communication.
Autism assistance dogs placed by Support Dogs are also family dogs, when they are not wearing their ID jackets which indicates they are at work, they can switch off and enjoy their down time. Typically they remain with their host families for life. So one child and their family will have the consistency of only one dog ever being placed with them. Over this period of several years, the aim will be to gradually withdraw the support of the dog as the child develops their skills and coping abilities. But the dog will remain as the family pet, with the parent handler remaining as their principal care giver in most cases.
Going back to my question about dogs’ ability to cope with exposure to stress I hope you’ll agree that the programme described here takes every precaution to protect their dogs from any such effects. The dog’s welfare is monitored and maintained throughout their selection, training and life with their families. Through the use of positive reinforcement training we can see how the dogs will associate typical behaviours of their child with reward. Crucially they are not used as a proxy carer or body guard; responsibility and direction remains firmly with their thoroughly-trained handlers. Finally as their lives progress their ‘work’ load dissipates while their welfare is maintained as much loved family members.
Given the amount of time and expense raising and training dogs to the required standard it’s no surprise that demand significantly outstrips supply. A real danger that shortfalls of this kind presents is that they can be filled with the unscrupulous who will prey on those families and individuals desperate for help. Here in Europe there have been cases of bogus companies selling unhealthy, untrained dogs into unsuspecting families for 1000’s of pounds. Beyond the financial considerations, the potential for harm to both host families and dogs is huge.
Legitimacy—who defines standards?
Assistance Dog International and Assistance Dogs UK are the international and national (UK) umbrella organisations which verify those charities training and assigning dogs to families and individuals. They do not recognise commercial outfits, only those organisations with charitable status. Currently psychiatric and emotional support dogs are not recognised as official assistance dogs in the UK, therefore retailers, restaurants, and transport providers are under no obligation to allow them entry to their premises or carry them in the cabs, buses or planes.
In the US the picture is different; emotional support animals are much more widely recognised and accepted. In order for your dog or other pet to be recognised as an emotional support animal in the US you will need an emotional support animal letter, from a mental health professional. Presumably if you are suffering from a mental health issue, you could get a referral from your general practitioner. However you don’t actually need to go to that trouble. You can simply go online and fill in a short questionnaire to be referred on to an online or phone call-based consultation with a professional who can then issue you with your letter. I completed the initial short questionnaire on one such service (www.certapet.com) to get an idea of the kind of questions the initial screening asks. The process took five minutes and perhaps not surprisingly I passed this initial test and was judged as a good prospect for an emotional support animal. I obviously didn’t want to complete the process as a) I am not eligible as a UK citizen b) I don’t want to pay a minimum of $149.00 and c) I don’t need an emotional support animal.
Additionally there are registration sites, where you can add your service or support dog; they can give the impression that they are official bodies. In reality there is no legal obligation for service or support dog owners to register anywhere. Many of them charge a fee and sell certificates, vests, patches and other forms of identification. As I found out talking to Hannah at Support Dogs, there is a tremendous amount of expertise, time and money that goes into producing and placing one properly equipped support dog. One who can cope with safely accompanying their person out and about.
Of course there are many organisations doing similar work in the US.
Is there a danger though of dogs that have been home-trained, or certified by an online facilitated mental health assessment being poorly-prepared and inadequately trained? And therefore at risk of an expectation to perform above and beyond their individual capacities and way outside their comfort zones?
Have you encountered, distressed, stressed and disruptive support dogs in public places?
They’re All Therapy Dogs
The benefits of being a dog guardian whether they work for you or it’s totally the other way around, are many. Fresh air, exercise, social connection, mental well-being and so on and so on. Whether that paw on your knee when you’re feeling low is the result of deep emotional intelligence or not isn’t really important. It’s an expression of inter-species communication, which, the more we learn about, the more special it becomes.
There is no doubt that physical and psychiatric support dogs are here to stay, with ever more applications being covered by specifically trained dogs. It’s another example of the amazing cognitive, emotional and social capacity of these incredible creatures, to bring comfort, aid and independence to so many people.
A flip side of this great potential it seems though is risk of exploitation and harm. Harm to vulnerable individuals, families and children who may succumb to unscrupulous companies who spot a gap in the market. Harm to dogs who may be ill trained, overworked and/or burdened by unrealistic expectations.
Is now the time to look at these questions? Canine science is revealing more and more about our dogs’ emotional, mental and social capacity. Will we realise more similarities with us and celebrate differences too? Will we uncover still more talents and uses for our canine friends? If this is the case, we must be ever more mindful of protecting the interests of our best friends and use our increasing knowledge to ensure the highest standards of welfare we can.
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