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

Karine Silva, Liliana de Sousa

Abstract

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.

  • Received January 21, 2011.
  • Accepted February 2, 2011.
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