Plenty of research has shown that dogs respond to signs of their owner’s distress, such as crying, but it hasn’t been clear to what extent pups will try to make their owners feel better. A paper published Tuesday in the journal Learning & Behavior, however, suggests that “dogs will actually take an action trying to alleviate that distress,” says Julia Meyers-Manor, an assistant professor of psychology at Ripon College in Wisconsin and a co-author of the study. The results suggest that your pooch may empathize with and care for you even more than you know.
The researchers ran an experiment with 34 dog-owner pairs from the Twin Cities area in Minnesota. The dogs were of a variety of breeds and ranged from 1.5 to 12 years old.
Each of the owners sat in a small room, closed off from his or her dog by a door. The door, which had a window that allowed dogs to see their owners, was fastened to its frame by magnets, so dogs of any size could push it open.
To test how dogs would respond to suffering, half of the owners were instructed to say the word “help” in a distressed tone of voice every 15 seconds, making crying noises in between. The other half said “help” in an emotionless tone, and hummed “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” between words. The researchers then observed how many of the dogs made an attempt to open the door to be with their owner.
Roughly half of the dogs ended up opening the door — but there was no significant difference between dogs who heard their owners crying versus humming. So does that mean dogs have no empathy?
Not necessarily. While about the same number of dogs in each group opened the door, dogs responding to owner distress did so much faster — after an average of 23 seconds, compared to almost 96 seconds in the humming group. Among dogs who did open the door, those who scored highly on a separate owner bond test, which involved measuring how much a pet gazed at its person during a frustrating situation, tended to open the door quickly, signifying that dogs who feel attached to their owners want to help.
“Some of this was that dogs want to be with their people,” Meyers-Manor says. “But they want to be with their people even quicker if the person is crying than if they’re humming.”
The findings also suggest some solace for people whose dogs did not open the door. The dogs in the crying group showed significantly more signs of distress — including pacing, panting and whining — than pooches in the control group, suggesting that they may have been too anxious or upset to complete the task. “That tells us that no one should be concerned if their dog doesn’t open the door if they’re crying,” says co-author Emily Sanford, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Johns Hopkins University. “It might be that they love you too much.”
Plus, Sanford adds, it stands to reason that dogs would show a range of personality traits, just as humans do.
“There are some people who just don’t have as strong empathy toward other people,” Sanford says. “So we are not surprised at all to find that there’s a range in other species besides our own.”
And while the study exposed some interesting new findings about canine behavior, Meyers-Manor says one thing remained constant: Each owner thought his or her pet was a very good dog.
“Immediately after we finished each person-and-dog combo, almost every one of them would sit and explain how their dog really would rescue them,” she laughs. “That happened whether they were in the control group and humming, or crying. Everyone wanted to tell us how much their dog would actually help.”
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