Why some people care more about dogs than humans

  • Fiza Pirani, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
2:16 p.m Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017 Nation& World
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To most dog owners, Fido isn’t just a four-legged roommate − he’s family. But do people love their pets more than other people?

According to new research from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts and the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado, some people really do feel more for dogs, at least in some cases.

The research, recently published in the journal Society and Animals, includes survey data from 256 mostly white undergraduate students, who read fake news stories with police reports of either a brutally beaten dog, puppy, human, child, infant or human adult.

In one experiment, students read reports of a victim (either a one-year-old baby, 30-year-old adult, a puppy or a six-year-old dog) left unconscious with a broken leg and multiple lacerations after being attacked with a baseball bat by an unknown assailant.

The students were then asked to answer questions that measured their empathy toward the victims.

The findings showed that people have more empathy for battered and hurt puppies and full-grown dogs than they do for human adults.

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“Subjects did not view their dogs as animals, but rather as 'fur babies,' or family members alongside human children,” the researchers concluded.

But empathy levels for human children, the researchers found, were similar to those for puppies and adult dogs.

Female participants were more likely to be empathetic toward all of the victims compared to their male counterparts.

“Contrary to popular thinking, we are not necessarily more disturbed by animal rather than human suffering,” study author Jack Levin said in a news release. “Our results indicate a much more complex situation with respect to the age and species of victims, with age being the more important component.”

Additionally, Levin said, the students viewed adult humans as “capable of protecting themselves,” but full-grown dogs were just considered larger puppies.

The study had a small, homogeneous sample of mostly white undergraduate students, which Levin said is common practice for his studies that center around an experiment. 

“Unlike survey research, experiments usually employ a homogenous sample in order to establish a cause and effect relationship rather than to generalize a large population,” he said. “However, there is really no reason to believe that our results would differ very much nationally, particularly among college students.”

Homogenous sampling is normally used when the research goal is to understand and describe a particular group, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

But homogeneous samples can potentially “eliminate noise due to variation in one or more sociodemographic factors,” research from the National Institutes of Health found.

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