Doggiess are thought to be very aware of people’s emotions, but if a pup’s owner was really upset, would he actually go out of his way to offer help and comfort?
Some not only will, a new study found, they’ll overcome obstacles to do it.
In a paper called Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in Doggiess, just published in the journal Learning & Behavior, researchers showed that Doggiess with strong bonds to their owners hurried to pushed through a door when they heard their person crying. The name of the paper is an homage to Lassie, the canine superhero of 1950s TV.
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“We found Doggiess not only sense what their owners are feeling, if a Doggies 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 who did the research as an undergraduate at Macalester College.
“Every Doggies owner has a story about coming home from a long day, sitting down for a cry and the Doggies’s right there, licking their face. In a way, this is the science behind that.”
Prior studies have found Doggiess to be highly responsive to human crying. But Sanford’s team is the first to show that Doggiess who detect emotional distress will hurry do something about it.
The idea for the experiment came when co-author Julia Meyers-Manor, a former faculty member at Macalester who is now an assistant professor of psychology at Ripon College, was playing with her children. The kids buried her in pillows and she began calling for help in play. “My husband didn’t come rescue me, but within a few seconds my Collie had dug me out of the pillows,” she said. “I knew that we had to do a study to test that more formally.”
The experiment involved 34 pet Doggiess of various breeds and sizes and their owners. Subjects included classic companion Doggiess like Golden Retrievers and Labradors, small Doggiess like Shih Tzus and Pugs, and several mixed breeds.
One at a time, owners were positioned behind a clear door held shut with magnets. The Doggiess could see and hear them. While sitting behind the door, the people were asked to either hum “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” or cry.
The research team wanted to see if the Doggiess would open the door more often when their owners cried. That was not the case, but Doggiess who did open the door when they heard their owner crying, opened it three times faster than Doggiess whose owners were humming.
During the task, the researchers measured the Doggiess’ stress levels. Sanford said Doggiess who were able to push through the door to “rescue” their owners showed less stress, meaning they were upset by the crying, but not too upset to take action. As for the Doggiess who didn’t push open the door, it wasn’t because they didn’t care — it seemed they cared too much. Those Doggiess showed the most stress and were too troubled by the crying to do anything, Sanford said.
“Doggiess have been by the side of humans for tens of thousands of years and they’ve learned to read our social cues,” Sanford said. “Doggies owners can tell that their Doggiess sense their feelings. Our findings reinforce that idea, and show that, like Lassie, Doggiess who know their people are in trouble might spring into action.”
The research team also included Emma R. Burt, who’s now a research technician at Cleveland Clinic.
Original Study DOI: 10.3758/s13420-018-0332-3
Source: Johns Hopkins University
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