Dogs are man’s best friend for a reason. They’ve been by our side since we were living in caves and their physical features more closely resembled wolves than the hodgepodge of different breeds we have today. Throughout our symbiotic existence, they’ve provided us with protection, companionship, and comfort. Sometimes it seems like our dogs are even able to read our minds – or at least our emotions.
Now, a new study published in the journal Learning & Behavior has found that dogs are willing to go out of their way to provide us with help and comfort when we show signs of being upset.
Julia-Meyers-Manor, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ripon College, was playing with her children one day when they buried her in pillows. She began playfully calling out for help, “My husband didn’t come rescue me, but, within a few seconds, my collie had dug me out of the pillows,” she recalls. “I knew that we had to do a study to test that more formally.” And thus the idea for this study was born.
The participants were 34 dogs of various breeds and sizes and their owners. Individual owners were positioned behind a clear door held closed with magnets, allowing their dog to see and hear them. The owners were then asked to either hum “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” or cry. The researchers were looking to see if the dogs would open the door more often when their owners were crying. Although this did not turn out to be the case, they found that dogs who did open the door when their owner was crying opened it three times faster than dogs whose owners were humming.
The researchers also measured the dogs’ stress levels. Results showed that dogs who were able to push through the door to “rescue” their owners showed less stress. They also observed that dogs who didn’t push the door open didn’t abstain because they didn’t care – rather, it seemed like they cared too much. These dogs exhibited the most stress and were too troubled by their owner crying to do anything.
“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,” says lead author Emily Sanford, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University.
Past studies have shown that dogs are very responsive to human crying. But this is the first study to show that dogs who sense emotional distress will actively try to do something about it.
“Dogs have been by the side of humans for tens of thousands of years and they’ve learned to read our social cues,” says Sanford. “Dog owners can tell that their dogs sense their feelings. Our findings reinforce that idea, and show that, like Lassie, dogs who know their people are in trouble might spring into action.”