Carried out by US researchers, the idea for the study came from co-author Julia Meyers-Manor, a former faculty member at Macalester College and now at Ripon College.
Meyers-Manor reports that she was playing with her children, who buried her under a mound of pillows. When she playfully called out for help she says, “My husband didn’t come to rescue me, but, within a few seconds, my collie had dug me out of the pillows. I knew that we had to do a study to test that more formally.”
To investigate further, the team recruited 34 pet dogs of various breeds and sizes and their owners.
The breeds included classic companion dogs such as golden retrievers and Labradors as well as small dogs like Shihtzus and pugs and several mixed breeds.
The owners were asked to sit behind a clear door that was held shut with magnets, where the dogs could both see and hear them.
They were then asked to either hum “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” or to start crying, so the team could see if the dogs would open the door more often when their owners appeared distressed and in need of comfort.
In fact, the researchers found that dogs in the distress condition opened the door just as much as the dogs in the control condition.
However, the dogs who opened the door when they heard their owner crying opened it three times faster than dogs whose owners were humming.
The researchers also measured the dogs’ stress levels, finding that the dogs who opened the door to help their owners actually showed less stress, suggesting they were upset by the crying, but not too upset to take action. On the other hand, dogs who didn’t push open the door showed the most stress. It was for this reason, said the researchers, that they didn’t take action. Rather than not caring, they were just too upset 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,” said lead author Emily Sanford. “Every dog owner has a story about coming home from a long day, sitting down for a cry and the dog’s right there, licking their face. In a way, this is the science behind that.”
Although previous research has already shown that dogs are highly responsive to human crying, this is the first study to show that dogs who detect emotional distress will hurry 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,” Sanford 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.”