While countless dog owners will tell you that their dogs make a purposeful effort to comfort and support them if they think they are upset – it has never been scientifically tested before – until now.
A new study undertaken by researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, undertook the first of its kind study to determine whether dogs understand and react to different human emotions and truly offer support when they detect that humans are upset or in times of crisis.
The results of their study were published in the Journal Learning & Behavior on Tuesday.
A few years ago, Julia Manor, an assistant professor of psychology at Ripon College in Wisconsin, had an epiphany when she was playing with her kids.
During the playtime with her children, they buried her in pillows. As they did, she began calling for help.
What happened next made a light bulb go off in her thoughts.
“My husband didn’t come to rescue me, but, within a few seconds, my collie had dug me out of the pillows,” Manor said. “I knew that we had to do a study to test that more formally.”
In a relatively small group of test subjects, John Hopkins researchers created an experiment they analyzed using 34 dogs. The study involved various breeds, sizes and ages. 16 dogs in the study were nationally certified therapy dogs. However, at the conclusion of the study, the researchers found no significant difference among dog breeds or their ages in how they reacted and responded.
Using two rooms, the dog was placed in a rectangular room adjacent to a smaller square room where the dog’s owner was sitting behind a plexiglass door appearing trapped. The door was held closed with magnets which would open if the dog gave a bit of a nudge with its nose. The dog was able to see and hear its owner through the plexiglass door.
In executing the experiment, the researchers divided the owners and their dogs into two groups, who were given different instructions.
The first group was instructed to hum “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and to say “help” at 15-second intervals using a normal tone.
The second group was instructed to say “help” using a distressed tone at 15-second intervals, as well as, make crying sounds.
In the experiment, a similar number of dogs in both groups opened the door – nine in the humming group and seven in the crying group.
The most significant contrast was how quickly the dogs reacted. The dogs whose owners were in the crying group opened the door more than three times faster, an average of 23.43 seconds, compared to the humming group who waited 95.89 seconds on average to open the door.
The co-author of the study, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University, Emily Sanford, said: “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 help to them.”
In addition, the scientist researched the stress level of the dogs during the experiment. They found that the dogs who were able to push through the door to “assist” their owners, demonstrated less stress. The researcher said this shows that even though the dogs were upset by the crying of their owners, they were not to upset to take action.
Conversely, they found that the dogs who did not push the door open were the most stressed. The researchers believe that this shows that the dogs who were stressed out the most were to rattled by the crying of their owners to take any action. In other words, these dogs cared too much and the apparent stress of their owners affected them.
“It’s really cool for us to know that dogs are so sensitive to human emotional states,” Sanford said, adding, “It is interesting to think that all these anecdotes of dogs rescuing humans, they could be grounded in truth, and this study is a step toward understanding how those kinds of mechanisms work.”
Even though the study was done on a small scale, the findings are significant enough to pave the way for broader studies to better evaluate what influences canine behavior. Considering that humans are employing more service dogs than ever, additional studies are warranted.
You can read the full results of the study in the Journal Learning & Behavior.