We often think of our dogs as our ride or die. They are more loyal than our friends or family and will be there for us when we need them the most – somehow knowing when we are going through tough times. But is that really the case? While it has been shown that dogs are empathetic, one study wanted to know if they act on these tendencies, responding to their owner when he or she is in distress.
Researchers including Julia E. Meyers-Manor, who studies animal behavior, set out to see if dogs will help out their owners when they are upset and wanting their canine friend to be by their side.
The team worked with 34 adult dogs – both small and large breeds, and mixed and purebreds – and their owners. The owners, separated from their dog, sat in a chair, behind a clear door, which could easily be pushed open with a tap of a dog’s nose or paw.
Some owners were tasked with simply humming “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or saying the word “help” in a neutral tone (so, definitely not in a distressed state). While the other half did act upset, saying “help” in an alarming tone, with some owners even crying.
What the team found was that of those dogs who opened the door (about 50 percent), they opened it at the same rate for the distressed “help” owner and the ones humming – meaning the emotional state of the owner may not have come into play. However, of the dogs who opened the door, they did so faster for the upset owners.
“This tells us that dogs do respond differently to us based on our emotional states,” Meyers-Manor told This Dog’s Life. “They seem to recognize that crying includes some urgency.”
They also found that the dogs who did not open the door for their “crying” owners exhibited higher stress levels, possibly indicating they were too anxious to help. “What we found is that the dogs that get too distressed being away from their owners were unable to open the door,” says Meyers-Manor.
The team will continue studying empathy in dogs, with plans to study strangers interacting with dogs.
The findings were published in Learning and Behavior.