A Creature for Whom It Matters That You’re There

Thomas Dixon and Tom Laqueur speak to Barbara Taylor about our relationships with animals and how they figure in our understanding of loneliness and solitude. This conversation was filmed during the second COVID-19 lockdown in England, with topics stretching from the meanings of empathy, to animal evolution, canine grief, and the difference between cats and dogs.

The COVID pandemic has seen a huge increase in dog ownership. For many people, canine companionship has been crucial in helping them deal with the solitariness of lockdown and social distancing. Dogs have long served this function, their friendly presence comforting us during periods of loneliness.  We imagine our dogs sympathising with us, their nose-nudges and wagging tails telling us they care about us. But what do dogs really feel about us? Is sympathy, or empathy as it’s also called, a distinctively human trait? Can animals empathise with us?

Here two leading historians, Thomas Dixon and Tom Laqueur, discuss emotional connections between humans and animals, especially dogs, and how these connections affect our experiences of solitude.


Thomas Dixon (@ProfThomasDixon) is Professor of History at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain (2008) and Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears (2015).

Thomas Laqueur is Professor of History at University of California Berkeley. He is the author of Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (2003) and The Work of the Dead: a Cultural History of Mortal Remains (2015).

Barbara Taylor is Professor of Humanities at Queen Mary University of London and Principal Investigator on the ‘Pathologies of Solitude’ project.