A proposal on dogs’
capacity to empathize
Empathy has long attracted the attention of
philosophers and psychologists, and more recently,
of evolutionary biologists. Interestingly, studies
suggest that empathy is a phylogenetically continu-
ous 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
routes been proposed to further explore the level
of emotional and cognitive processing underlying
humans. In this opinion piece, we begin by contex-
tualizing 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.
Keywords: behaviour; domestic dog; cognition;
Empathy is a social phenomenon that has long been at
the centre of research (e.g. ). When we empathize,
we vicariously ‘feel into’ the others and understand
how they feel, which not only helps us engage in effec-
tive social communication but also may motivate us to
behave pro-socially .
Recently, non-human empathy has also become
the focus of attention spurred on, to some extent,
by the influential paper of Preston & de Waal .
Interestingly, these authors outlined a sequence of pro-
gressively complex levels of empathy across animals
that parallels the development of empathy in young
humans. According to their proposal, early on in devel-
opment, an automatic mechanism causes the state of
an individual who experiences an emotional state
(the object) to elicit a relevant, or similar, state in a
perceiver (the subject)—the more interrelated the sub-
ject and the object, the more the subject will attend to
the object, and the readier the emotional reaction. This
limits empathy to emotional contagion because the
subject cannot distinguish their own emotions from
others’ and has no control over emotional reactivity.
Later on, as cognitive abilities are progressively layered
upon automatic emotional activation, empathy goes
beyond emotional contagion and develops, first into
sympathetic concern (implying that the subject has
the ability to discriminate between internally and
externally generated emotions) and then into empathic
perspective taking (implying that the subject can form
a cognitive representation of the object’s emotional
situation and needs, similarly to representing non-
emotional states) . In humans, the tendency to
comfort others who are expressing emotional distress
(probably grounded in sympathetic concern) develops
around nine months of age and is followed by the
emergence of spontaneous helping (probably driven
by empathic perspective taking) around 14 months
of age .
Although observable examples of emotional conta-
mentioned in the literature, only recently has exper-
imental evidence started to emerge. Langford et al.
 showed that mice intensify their responses to pain
when perceiving cage mates, but not strangers, in
pain; Parr  found that chimpanzees respond to
video images of socially close conspecifics in distress
by a vicarious emotional response and Davila Ross et
al.  reported involuntary facial mimicry in orang-
utans. Note that facial mimicry has been linked to
emotional contagion in humans, although it is still
being discussed whether emotional conveyance results
from mimicry or vice versa.
As suggestive evidence that sympathetic concern
must also have emerged in a pre-human basis, some
species (e.g. [8,9]) show consolation-like behaviours,
that is, post-conflict affiliative interactions directed
from a third party to the recipient of aggression and
assumed to have a stress-alleviating function. Similarly,
the basic forms of instrumental help demonstrated in
chimpanzees have been associated to the capacity for
empathic perspective taking ( but see ). Cur-
iously, chimpanzees that grow up interacting with
people not only appear to console and help conspecifics
but also humans .
What about other animals living in close contact
with humans, such as domestic dogs? Although the
special relationship that dogs have developed with
humans has been attracting increasing research inter-
est, and a profound level of mutual understanding
and shared emotion has already been suggested ,
no stringent proposal can be found in the literature
on whether, and at what level, dogs may empathize
with humans. This is even more remarkable in view
of the strong possibility of convergent evolution
between dogs and humans—sustained by the fact
that dogs possess certain human-like social skills that
non-human apes do not .
The present piece aims at laying the ground for sys-
tematic debate and investigation on dog empathy
towards humans by presenting a critical discussion
from which a coherent research programme might be
designed. We consider that investigations on this
topic may provide unique insights into the evolutionary
processes as well as the mechanisms underlying
human-like forms of this social phenomenon.
Biol. Lett. (2011) 7, 489–492
Published online 16 February 2011
Received 21 January 2011
Accepted 2 February 2011
This journal is q 2011 The Royal Society
2. WHY WOULD DOGS HAVE THE CAPACITY
TO EMPATHIZE WITH HUMANS?
There are three main reasons for why we believe that
dogs may be able to empathize with humans, perhaps
even at some level beyond emotional contagion.
First, dogs originated from wolves , which are
highly social animals that engage in cooperative activi-
ties and that probably have some capacity for empathy
towards socially close conspecifics (, see also 
and  for discussions on reconciliation and consola-
tion in canid species). Second, biological changes
produced during the domestication process (e.g. tame-
ness) may have allowed dogs to use their inherited
empathic capacities to synchronize with humans and
predict their behaviour more flexibly than their
ancestors (note that this follows the ‘domestication
hypothesis’ proposed to explain dogs’ special skills
for communicating with humans; ). Third, breed
diversification and selection for increasingly complex
cognitive capacities  may have led to increasingly
complex forms of empathy that now resemble certain
traits of human emotional communication.
3. AVAILABLE EVIDENCE
Although only limited research has been done, we con-
sider that dogs’ capacity for emotional contagion and
perhaps for some cognitive processing of humans’
emotional states is supported by both anecdotal
(e.g. ) and experimental data. Jones & Josephs
 found that dogs react to their owners’ stress with
an increasein negative
Joly-Mascheroni et al.  showed that dogs can
catch human yawns. It is noteworthy that, although
Harr et al.  failed to replicate Joly-Mascheroni
et al.’s  findings, differences in the type of stimuli
that were used (live in Joly-Mascheroni et al. 
versus video clips in Harr et al. ) may have contrib-
uted to the apparent discrepancy in their results.
Curiously, contagious yawning has been connected to
higher levels of empathy in humans, with studies
suggesting that it probably shares a developmental
basis with self-awareness and perspective taking .
Although dogs tend to fail the mirror self-recognition
test  some authors, who have questioned the use of
a single technique, based solely on visual cues, as the
only valid test of self-awareness, claim that it might
not indicate the absence of self-awareness required for
empathic levels beyond emotional contagion (e.g.
). Indeed, a study showing that pets, namely dogs,
behave as ‘upset’ as children when exposed to familiar
people faking distress, strongly suggests ‘sympathetic
concern’ . Also, it has been reported that untrained
dogs may be sensitive to human emergencies and may
act appropriately to summon help , which, if true,
suggests empathic perspective taking. The one study
testing this idea in two experiments (in one dogs’
owners feigned a heart attack and in another they
experienced an accident in which a bookcase fell on
them and pinned them to the floor) concluded, how-
ever, that dogs did not seem to understand the nature
of the emergency or the need to obtain help . We
believe, however, that this does not discard the possi-
emergency scenarios might not have been sufficiently
dramatic or realistic to be interpreted by the dogs as a
real emergency. Also, olfactory cues may be important
for dogs to accurately assess and respond to others’
emotions. For instance, pheromones produced by a
person suffering the pain and the stress of a real emer-
gency may contribute to dogs’ sense of a real
Since no additional studies have been conducted,
one way to further discuss dogs’ empathic potential is
to employ research on mental state attribution (as in
Koski & Sterck ). Studies show that when faced
with a piece of forbidden food, dogs are quicker to
take it if the experimenter cannot see them . Con-
trastingly, dogs preferentially beg from a person that
can see them . While, to some authors, such find-
ings are indicative of a simple foraging strategy based
on the greatest chance of reinforcement (e.g. ),
to others (including ourselves), they suggest that dogs
may have the capacity to infer what humans see,
know and feel (e.g. ). Likewise, there is a see-
mingly intractable debate around studies showing
that dogs can use human pointing gestures to find
hidden food (e.g. ). While some authors stress
that this capacity can be accounted for by means of
straightforward associative learning (e.g. ), others
(including ourselves) defend the idea that dogs may
actually understand that the person knows the location
of food and is trying to convey this information to them
Even though the scarcity of studies prevents us from
drawing any firm conclusions, we consider that one
should argue against those who criticize the attribution
of complex abilities to animals if a major part of their
argument lies on the need for parsimony (as in
Broom ). Given the complex nature of the brain,
this may be misleading, and it could slow down pro-
gress in science, to insist on accepting the simple
4. FUTURE DIRECTIONS
Clearly, there is a need for additional investigations to
analyse the emotional and cognitive components that
may be involved in dogs’ seemingly empathic behav-
iour towards humans. While the former could be
assessed by experimental studies subjecting dogs to
human emotions, while monitoring behavioural and
physiological indicators of their emotional state, the
latter could be tested by measuring dog behaviour
towards a person after an emotional stimulus .
Given that numerous niches already exist for domestic
dogs, as do genetically distinct lines, comparative
studies could shed light on the factors that lead to, or
hinder, the development of empathic skills, and pro-
vide information about factors that affect our own
emotional/cognitive development. In addition, and
given that dogs are argued to show a personality struc-
ture similar to humans’ , it could be interesting
to test the effects of individual differences in personal-
ity traits on the level of empathy. Studies have shown
that some people have greater empathic ability than
others , but it is yet unknown how differences in
attachment style or extraversion/introversion affect
490K. Silva & L. de Sousa
Opinion piece. May dogs empathize with humans?
Biol. Lett. (2011)
empathy and pro-social behaviour. Also, little is known
about the malleability of the mechanisms underlying
empathy and it has been questioned whether it could
be possible to train people (or dogs?) to become
more empathic, and which processing level (emotional
or cognitive) should be targeted in order for such a
training to be most effective and persistent—all issues
education and society as a whole.
Finally, we argue that research on the empathic abil-
ities of dogs is of special importance for decisions
about our obligations to them. Dogs have been
increasingly involved with human activities and further
studies are crucial if specific needs are to be met. For
instance, it would be important to conduct rigorous
tests on therapeutic dogs that seem to ‘take on’ the
emotions of patients, needing massages and calming
measures after the sessions (e.g. ).
The authors are grateful to Frans de Waal and Katie Hall, as
well as to Claudio Tennie, Amrisha Vaish and Atsushi Senju
for their valuable suggestions. Also the authors are grateful
to three anonymous referees whose comments considerably
improved an earlier version of this article.
Karine Silva1,2,*and Liliana de Sousa1,2
1Departamento de Cie ˆncias do Comportamento, Instituto
de Cie ˆncias Biome ´dicas Abel Salazar, Largo Professor Abel
Salazar, 2, 4099-003 Porto, Portugal
2Aˆnimas, Avenida Sido ´nio Pais, 392, r/c Dto., 4100-466
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