Do dogs feel empathy? Of course, all us dog people say. Maybe, scientists have generally said.
Now comes what describes itself as the first scientific proof that pets are empathetic, in tune with their owner’s emotions, and quickly respond when they think their owners are upset.
In a new study, scientists took 34 dogs and positioned them behind a movable door with their owners on the other side.
Then they had those owners either pretend to cry, call for help, or hum “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
The dogs nosed their way through the door three times more quickly when they thought their owners were upset and needed comforting.
“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,” said lead author Emily Sanford, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University.
“Dogs have been by the side of humans for tens of thousands of years and they’ve learned to read our social cues,” she said. “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.”
Researchers also determined dogs with lower stress levels were more likely to push through the door to “rescue” their owners.
Senior author Julia Meyers-Manor first conceived of the experiment after her own dog, a collie, rushed to her side after hearing her fake muffled cries for help while she was playing with her children.
A former faculty member at Macalester College and current assistant professor of psychology at Ripon College, she wondered just how far a dog would go for a distressed human companion The Smithsonian reported.
Together with Sanford, an undergraduate at Macalester at the time, and their colleague Emma R. Burt, Meyers-Manor designed a series of experiments to explore the extent of empathy in dogs.
First, 34 dogs were separated from their owners by a clear plastic door held shut with magnets. The owners were instructed to either make crying noises or hum “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” for up to five minutes. Every 15 seconds, they would say the word “help” in either an upset or casual tone to match their emotional state.
Half the dogs pushed through the door to get to their humans’ side regardless of the anguish their owners conveyed.
Upon closer inspection of the dogs that entered their owners’ room, Sanford noticed that those who were hearing weeping barged in about four times faster than those hearing nonchalant humming. And when the team assessed the strength of each dog’s bond to its owner, they found that dogs who were more attached to their people were more likely to rush in to the sound of sobbing than those who stayed put.
“This validates what a lot of people already feel: The dogs do respond to the crying,” said Meyers-Manor. “It’s not just your imagination when your dog cuddles you when you’re crying in bed. They do seem to care about how we’re feeling.”
The study, titled “Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs,” was published in the journal Learning & Behavior.
The responding dogs were also calmer when they reacted, and the dogs who barked and paced instead were more highly stressed.
“We think the dogs who opened that door might have been at that sweet spot: they perceived stress, but weren’t so personally distressed that they couldn’t do anything,” Sanford said.
Other variations in the responses could have resulted from that quality of the fake crying — “Some of the owners weren’t exactly actors,” she explained.
Regardless of their dogs’ reactions in the moment, most of the study’s human participants affirmed their dogs generally responded to them when they were troubled or in danger.
(Photo credits: Top, PetSmart Charities, lower, Reddit)