'Canis empathicus'? A proposal on dogs' capacity to empathize with humans

Departamento de Ciências do Comportamento, Instituto de Ciências Biomédicas Abel Salazar, Largo Professor Abel Salazar, 2, 4099-003 Porto, Portugal.
Biology letters (Impact Factor: 3.25). 02/2011; 7(4):489-92. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0083
Source: PubMed


Empathy has long attracted the attention of philosophers and psychologists, and more recently, of evolutionary biologists. Interestingly, studies suggest that empathy is a phylogenetically continuous phenomenon, ranging across animals from automatic emotional activation in response to the emotions of others, to perspective-taking that becomes increasingly complex with increasing brain size. Although suggestions have been made that the domestic dog may have the capacity to empathize with humans, no discussion has yet addressed the topic, nor have experimental routes been proposed to further explore the level of emotional and cognitive processing underlying dogs' seemingly empathic behaviour towards humans. In this opinion piece, we begin by contextualizing our topic of interest within the larger body of literature on empathy. Thereafter we: (i) outline the reasons for why we believe dogs may be capable of empathizing with humans, perhaps even at some level beyond emotional contagion; (ii) review available evidence both pro and against our opinion; and (iii) propose routes for future studies to accurately address the topic. Also, we consider the use of dogs to further explore open questions regarding empathy in humans.

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    • "They are not only sensitive to the emotional state of their owners (Morisaki et al., 2009), but their behaviour can even be influenced by the owner's emotional expression (Merola et al., 2012). Dogs' interspecific social-and emotional responsiveness is further supported by recent investigations (Silva and Sousa, 2011; Romero et al., 2013) that raised the possibility that dogs have the ability to feel humans' emotional experiences ('affective empathy'). It is worth mentioning, that unlike the cognitive empathy system which entails representing another's emotional experience (de Waal 2008), affective empathy, is often described as an 'automatic' process (Hatfield et al., 1993) stemming from an unconscious social contagion system. "
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    ABSTRACT: Domestic dogs are living with humans in a very special inter-species relationship. Previous studies have shown physiological and hormonal synchronisation between dogs and their owners during positive interaction. Dogs are also known to be able to discriminate human emotions and they were also presupposed to have the capacity to empathise with humans. Based on these results we hypothesize that the owner's emotions can be contagious to the dog and stress-related emotional changes in dogs can be tracked by memory tasks because both human and nonhuman studies indicate a significant effect of perceived stress on subjects’ cognitive performance. In the present study the owners, after having completed State Anxiety Inventory and having participated in a memory task, were manipulated with either negative (Stressed owner condition) or positive (Non-stressed owner condition) verbal feedback in an additional task. Results indicate that the owners’ self-reported anxiety significantly increased in the Stressed owner condition due to the manipulation. We also measured the effect of the different manipulations on the owners’ and also on their dogs’ memory performance and found that in line with earlier studies the stress-evoking intervention had an improving effect on the owners’ memory performance. After separation from their owner (Stressed dog condition) dogs also showed better performance in a spatial working memory task and, more interestingly, task completion was also affected by the manipulation of their owners stress level. These findings provide further support for the emotional contagion between dogs and their owners, and suggest that measuring changes in the memory performance can be used as an indicator of contagion-induced changes in dogs’ stress level.
    Applied Animal Behaviour Science 11/2014; 160(1). DOI:10.1016/j.applanim.2014.09.001 · 1.69 Impact Factor
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    • "First, dogs originated from wolves, which are highly social animals that engage in cooperative activities to survive. Second, biological changes during the domestication process may have increased dogs' inherited empathic capacities; and third, breed diversification and selection for increasingly complex cognitive abilities may have led to increasing forms of empathy and resemblance to human emotional communication (Silva & de Sousa, 2011). "
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    ABSTRACT: This essay explores research in anthrozoology, which is the study of human-animal interactions. This is a modern interdisciplinary field which was created by an overlap of several other disciplines, including anthropology, ethology, psychology, veterinary medicine, and zoology. A major focus of anthrozoologic research is the quantification of the positive effects of human-animal relationships on either party and the study of the reality of these interactions. Research has revealed that dairy cows in England produce more milk when they are given names rather than numbers; canine scent detection can identify explosives, drugs, cadavers and termites, and therapy animals measurably reduce stress responses of patients. This essay reviews current research regarding animal consciousness, animal empathy, benefits of the human-animal bond, animal-assisted activities, equine therapy, and human-animal communication.
    NA, NA edited by NA, 11/2013: chapter Essay #3: pages 61; NA., ISBN: NA
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    • "It was originally used to refer to ''feeling into'' works of art or nature (Titchener 1909). However, from the mid-twentieth century onwards, empathy became a focus of psychological research in the context of social communication and prosociality (Silva and de Sousa 2011). Although there seem to be as many definitions of the term as researchers interested in it, empathy has broadly been defined as, ''the naturally occurring subjective experience of similarity between the feelings expressed by self and others without loosing (sic.) "
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    ABSTRACT: Empathy covers a range of phenomena from cognitive empathy involving metarepresentation to emotional contagion stemming from automatically triggered reflexes. An experimental protocol first used with human infants was adapted to investigate empathy in domestic dogs. Dogs oriented toward their owner or a stranger more often when the person was pretending to cry than when they were talking or humming. Observers, unaware of experimental hypotheses and the condition under which dogs were responding, more often categorized dogs' approaches as submissive as opposed to alert, playful or calm during the crying condition. When the stranger pretended to cry, rather than approaching their usual source of comfort, their owner, dogs sniffed, nuzzled and licked the stranger instead. The dogs' pattern of response was behaviorally consistent with an expression of empathic concern, but is most parsimoniously interpreted as emotional contagion coupled with a previous learning history in which they have been rewarded for approaching distressed human companions.
    Animal Cognition 05/2012; 15(5):851-9. DOI:10.1007/s10071-012-0510-1 · 2.58 Impact Factor
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