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.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Batson CD (1991) The altruism question: toward a social-psychological answer. Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale
Batson CD, Duncan BD, Ackerman P, Buckley T, Birch K (1981) Is empathic emotion a source of altruistic motivation? J Pers Soc Psychol 40:290–302
Belyaev DK, Ruvinsky AO, Trut LN (1981) Inherited activation-inactivation of the star gene in foxes. J Heredity 72:264–274
Church RM (1959) Emotional reactions of rats to the pain of others. J Comp Physiol Psychol 52:132–134
Cools AKA, van Hout AJ, Nelissen MHJ (2008) Canine reconciliation and third-party-initiated postconflict affiliation: do peacemaking social mechanisms in dogs rival those of primates? Ethology 114:53–63
De Waal FBM (2008) Putting the altruism back into altruism: the evolution of empathy. Annu Rev Psychol 59:279–300
De Waal FBM, van Roosmalen A (1979) Reconciliation and consolation among chimpanzees. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 5:55–66
Decety J, Jackson PL (2004) The functional architecture of human empathy. Behav Cog Neurosci Rev 3:71–100
Eisenberg N (2009) Empathy-related responding: links with self-regulation, moral judgment, and moral behavior. In: Mikulincer M, Shaver PR (eds) Prosocial motives, emotions and behavior: the better angels of our nature. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, pp 129–148
Hare B, Tomasello M (2006) Human-like social skills in dogs? Trends Cogn Sci 9:439–444
Hare B, Brown M, Williamson C, Tomasello M (2002) The domestication of social cognition in dogs. Science 298:1634–1636
Joly-Mascheroni RM, Senju A, Shepherd AJ (2008) Dogs catch human yawns. Biol Lett 4:446
Kaminski J, Bräuer J, Call J, Tomasello M (2009) Domestic dogs are sensitive to a human’s perspective. Behaviour 146:979–998
Koski SE, Sterck EHM (2007) Triadic postconflict affiliation in captive chimpanzees: does consolation console? Anim Behav 73:133–142
Ladygina-Kohts NN (1935/2001) Infant chimpanzee and human child: a classic 1935 comparative study of ape emotions and intelligence. Oxford University Press, Oxford
Langford DJ, Crager SE, Shehzad Z, Smith SB, Sotochinal SG et al (2006) Social modulation of pain as evidence for empathy in mice. Science 312:1967–1970
Macpherson K, Roberts WA (2006) Do dogs (Canis familiaris) seek help in an emergency? J Comp Psychol 120:113–119
Martin P, Bateson P (2007) Measuring behaviour: an introductory guide. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Miklósi Á (2008) Dog behaviour, evolution, and cognition. Oxford University Press, Oxford
Palmer R, Custance D (2008) A counterbalanced version of Ainsworth’s strange situation procedure reveals secure-base effects in dog–human relationships. Appl Anim Behav Sci 109:306–319
Prato-Previde E, Custance DM, Spiezio C, Sabatini F (2003) Is the dog–human relationship an attachment bond? An observational study using Ainsworth’s strange situation. Behav 140:225–254
Preston SD, de Waal FBM (2002) Empathy: its ultimate and proximate bases. Behav Brain Sci 25:1–72
Savolainen P, Zhang Y, Luo J, Lundeberg J, Leitner T (2002) Genetic evidence for East Asian origin of domestic dogs. Science 298:1610–1613
Scott JP, Fuller JL (1974) Dog behavior: the genetic basis. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
Seed AM, Clayton NS, Emery NJ (2007) Postconflict third party affiliation in rooks Corvus frugilegus. Curr Biol 17:152–158
Silva K, de Sousa L (2011) ‘Canis empathicus’? A proposal on dogs’ capacity to empathize with humans. Biol Lett 7:489–492
Titchener EB (1909) Lectures on the experimental psychology of thought-processes. Macmillan, New York
Topál J, Miklósi Á, Csányi V, Dóka A (1998) Attachment behavior in dogs (Canis familiaris): a new application of Ainsworth’s (1969) strange situation test. J Comput Psychol 112:219–229
Topál J, Byrne RW, Miklósi Á, Csányi V (2006) Reproducing human actions and action sequences: “Do as I do!” in a dog. Anim Cogn 9:355–367
Trut LN, Kharlomova AV, Kukekova AV, Acland GM, Carrier DR, Chaes K, Lark KG (2002) Morphology and behavior: are they coupled at the genome level? In: Ostramder EA, Giger U, Lindblad-Toh K (eds) The dog and its genome. Cold Harbor Springs Laboratory Press, Cold Harbor Springs, pp 515–538
Vitulli WF (2006) Attitudes toward empathy in domestic dogs and cats. Psychol Rep 99:981–991
Wechkin S, Masserman JH, Terris W (1964) Shock to a conspecific as an aversive stimuli. Psychon Sci 1:47–48
Yerkes R (1925) Almost human. Century, New York
Zahn-Waxler C, Radke-Yarrow M, King RA (1979) Child rearing and children’s prosocial initiations toward victims of distress. Child Dev 50:319–330
Zahn-Waxler C, Hollenbeck B, Radke-Yarrow M (1984) The origins of empathy and altruism. In: Fox MW, Mickley LD (eds) Advances in animal welfare science. Humane Soc US, Washington, DC, pp 21–39
Many thanks to Gordon Mayer, Debbie Mayer, Emily Bennett, Emma Collins, Emily Garside, Grace Godfrey, Robyn Palmer, Laurence Muspratt, and Vincent for assistance with testing. Grateful thanks to Pamela Heaton, Rory Allen, Kim Bard, Andrew Bremner, Elisabeth Hill, Andrew Whiten, and Alison Jolly for commenting on earlier drafts of this manuscript. We are indebted to our canine and human participants.
About this article
Cite this article
Custance, D., Mayer, J. Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to distress in humans: an exploratory study. Anim Cogn 15, 851–859 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-012-0510-1
- Emotional contagion
- Domestic dogs