Canine lovers hardly need more evidence that dogs are, in fact, good. But for any remaining heartless monsters, there’s this new study published on Monday in the journal of Learning and Behavior. It suggests that many dogs will rush over to comfort their owners if they think they’re in trouble.
That dogs are experts at reading our social cues is no secret. Previous research has shown that dogs notice and pay more attention to people who are crying, even if they aren’t their owner. But despite plenty of anecdotes, there’s apparently been no attempts to empirically study whether dogs become more willing to help when they perceive that humans are in distress, at least until now.
The researchers behind this current study (titled, “Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs,” in reference to the classic hero TV dog, Lassie) recruited 34 dogs and their owners for a simple experiment, based on a method used to study empathy in rats. Dogs small and large, including pugs, corgis, and mixed breeds, were used. Half of the dogs had been trained as therapy dogs, while the other half were plain old pet pups.
As the dogs entered an empty room, they would see and hear their owner behind a clear glass door. This door was shut using magnets, so it was openable by pushing on it. The owners then either cried or just hummed “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” (a neutral behaviour). The dogs’ stress levels—measured via heart rate and behavioural changes—were also tracked during the experiment. And afterwards, the dogs’ emotional bond to their owners was tested with a separate task.
The researchers theorised that dogs would both open the door more often and quicker when they were confronted with a crying owner.
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 they 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.”
“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 to help them,” lead author Emily Stafford, currently a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, said in a statement. The trial was originally conducted at Macalester College in the US state of Minnesota, while Sanford was an undergrad there.
The dogs who didn’t open the doors when seeing their owners crying weren’t necessarily uncaring either. Their stress levels were noticeably higher on average than the openers in the crying conditions, suggesting they might have been too anxious or upset by their owners’ distress to figure out how to get through the obstacle. The openers “were able to suppress their own distress response, thus enabling them to open the door more quickly,” the authors speculated.
In any case, it’s just more evidence of the essential goodness that permeates every pup.
“Our findings reinforce that idea, and show that, like Lassie, dogs who know their people are in trouble might spring into action,” said Sanford.