Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to distress in humans: an exploratory study

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3

References

  1. Batson CD (1991) The altruism question: toward a social-psychological answer. Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale

    Google Scholar 

  2. 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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Belyaev DK, Ruvinsky AO, Trut LN (1981) Inherited activation-inactivation of the star gene in foxes. J Heredity 72:264–274

    Google Scholar 

  4. Church RM (1959) Emotional reactions of rats to the pain of others. J Comp Physiol Psychol 52:132–134

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. 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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. De Waal FBM (2008) Putting the altruism back into altruism: the evolution of empathy. Annu Rev Psychol 59:279–300

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. De Waal FBM, van Roosmalen A (1979) Reconciliation and consolation among chimpanzees. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 5:55–66

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Decety J, Jackson PL (2004) The functional architecture of human empathy. Behav Cog Neurosci Rev 3:71–100

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 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

    Google Scholar 

  10. Hare B, Tomasello M (2006) Human-like social skills in dogs? Trends Cogn Sci 9:439–444

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Hare B, Brown M, Williamson C, Tomasello M (2002) The domestication of social cognition in dogs. Science 298:1634–1636

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Joly-Mascheroni RM, Senju A, Shepherd AJ (2008) Dogs catch human yawns. Biol Lett 4:446

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Kaminski J, Bräuer J, Call J, Tomasello M (2009) Domestic dogs are sensitive to a human’s perspective. Behaviour 146:979–998

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Koski SE, Sterck EHM (2007) Triadic postconflict affiliation in captive chimpanzees: does consolation console? Anim Behav 73:133–142

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Ladygina-Kohts NN (1935/2001) Infant chimpanzee and human child: a classic 1935 comparative study of ape emotions and intelligence. Oxford University Press, Oxford

  16. 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

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Macpherson K, Roberts WA (2006) Do dogs (Canis familiaris) seek help in an emergency? J Comp Psychol 120:113–119

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Martin P, Bateson P (2007) Measuring behaviour: an introductory guide. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  19. Miklósi Á (2008) Dog behaviour, evolution, and cognition. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  20. 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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Preston SD, de Waal FBM (2002) Empathy: its ultimate and proximate bases. Behav Brain Sci 25:1–72

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  23. Savolainen P, Zhang Y, Luo J, Lundeberg J, Leitner T (2002) Genetic evidence for East Asian origin of domestic dogs. Science 298:1610–1613

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Scott JP, Fuller JL (1974) Dog behavior: the genetic basis. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  25. Seed AM, Clayton NS, Emery NJ (2007) Postconflict third party affiliation in rooks Corvus frugilegus. Curr Biol 17:152–158

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Silva K, de Sousa L (2011) ‘Canis empathicus’? A proposal on dogs’ capacity to empathize with humans. Biol Lett 7:489–492

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Titchener EB (1909) Lectures on the experimental psychology of thought-processes. Macmillan, New York

    Google Scholar 

  28. 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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 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

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 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

    Google Scholar 

  31. Vitulli WF (2006) Attitudes toward empathy in domestic dogs and cats. Psychol Rep 99:981–991

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  32. Wechkin S, Masserman JH, Terris W (1964) Shock to a conspecific as an aversive stimuli. Psychon Sci 1:47–48

    Google Scholar 

  33. Yerkes R (1925) Almost human. Century, New York

    Google Scholar 

  34. 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

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  35. 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

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Deborah Custance.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

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

Download citation

Keywords

  • Empathy
  • Emotional contagion
  • Domestic dogs