In June, a study from the journal Learning and Behavior was published suggesting that many dogs “will rush over to comfort their owners if they think they’re in a predicament.”1 If you are a “dog parent” then you might have already known what science just proved: our dogs love us and can read social clues. (While previous research has shown that dogs notice and pay more attention to people who are crying, regardless of ownership, until now no attempts had been made to empirically study whether dogs were more willing to help when they perceived a human was in distress.)
The researchers behind the study titled, “Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs” recruited 34 dogs and their owners for the experiment. The method, based on a method used to study empathy in rats, used puppies, full grown dogs, dogs of small and large stature, corgis, and mixed breeds. And half of the dogs had been trained as therapy dogs, while the other half were just pets.
For the study, dogs entered an empty room where they could see and hear their owner behind a clear glass door that was shut using magnets (something the dogs could open by pushing). Researchers had owners cry or hum ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ (a neutral behavior) while the dogs’ stress levels were measured via heart rate and behavioral changes were tracked. Then, when they were done, the dogs’ emotional bond to their owners was tested with a separate task.
“About half the dogs opened the door when they saw their owners, regardless of the situation. But while more dogs didn’t open the door more often in the crying scenario, they were quicker to respond when they did. On average, they opened the door three times faster than dogs did in the neutral condition. The stronger their emotional bond to the owners, at least according to the post-test task the dogs took, the more likely they seemed to rush in. The study notes that the owners were of course only pretending to cry, and some of the owners ‘were significantly more convincing than others.'”2
Lead author Emily Stafford, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University Krieger School of Arts and Sciences said, “We found dogs not only sense what their owners are feeling, if a dog knows a way to help them, they’ll go through barriers to provide help to them.”3
But just because the dogs didn’t open the doors when seeing their owners crying didn’t mean they didn’t care as their stress levels were “noticeably higher on average” than the openers in the crying condition. The researchers speculated that the dogs might have been too anxious or upset by their owners’ distress to figure out how to get through the obstacle.
The researchers believe their data reinforced the idea that when dogs know their people are in trouble, they want to help and comfort us. (Something pet people have known for a long time!)