OMG - the Lassie story is real, our dogs really do care
Dogs will go out of their way to help you if you're distressed - and there's science to prove it
Owner in distress? Jock of the Bushveld will rush to the rescue. Dogs respond to owners who are crying three times faster than if they are humming a nursery rhyme, a new study shows.
“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,” says the lead author Emily Sanford, from Johns Hopkins University in the US, who conducted the experiment.She found that about half of the 34 dogs, of different breeds and sizes with strong bonds to their owners, would hurry through a door when they were crying.
The dogs that did nothing appeared to be paralysed by stress not uncaring; they had elevated stress levels, tests indicated.
Sanford says: “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.”
Pieter van Niekerk, from the Guide-Dogs Association: SA, has experienced consistent support from his guide dog of nine years, a golden retriever called O’Reilly.“My dog will push against me and put his nose on my lap if I’m upset, as if to comfort me and say: ‘I’m here for you, how can I help you?’ ”
“Over 31 years I have found guide dogs definitely respond to my emotions if I am upset,” he says.
The new research was the first to show that dogs – known to be very responsive to crying – would hurry to act.
Co-author Professor Julia Meyers-Manor had the idea to test this when she was playing with her children. She started calling for help after they buried her in pillows and her dog came rushing up.“My husband didn’t come rescue me, but, within a few seconds, my collie had dug me out of the pillows,” she says. “I knew that we had to do a study to test that more formally.”
Popular companion dogs like golden retrievers, labradors, shihtzus, pugs and several mixed breeds were included in the experiment.
The dogs could see and hear their humans through a clear door held closed with magnets. Behind the door, the owners were asked to cry or hum Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
The dogs did not open the door more often when the owners cried but those who did tripled their speed when they were crying. The dogs who made it through the door to crying owners had lower stress levels than those who didn’t.Sanford says: “It wasn’t because they didn’t care, it seemed they cared too much. Those dogs showed the most stress and were too troubled by the crying to do anything.”
Dogs have learned to read emotional clues including facial expressions, voices, posture and body odours after living closely with humans for centuries.
They use different parts of their brains “to process negative and positive emotions” on people’s faces, scientists recently found.
Another study this month found that dogs, like golden retrievers, have about roughly twice as many “cortical neurons” – the cells needed for complex behaviour – than cats, lions, hyenas and brown bears who have much larger sized brains.
The social behaviour of dogs, descended from pack wolves and attached to humans, may be a reason for their rich mental state, said the scientist in charge of that study, Dr Suzana Herculano-Houzel from Vanderbilt University.
Sanford says: “Our findings (published in Learning and Behaviour on Tuesday) show that, like Lassie, dogs who know their people are in trouble might spring into action.”
The study’s title, Timmy’s in the Well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs, pays tribute to the TV canine hero Lassie.