News Around the World

Dogs & Their Humans

It’s no surprise to dog owners — but now it’s scientifically legit: dogs will go out of their way to help their owners when their humans are upset.

In a new study with the Lassie-inspired title “Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and Prosocial Helping in Dogs,” Johns Hopkins University researchers positioned 34 dogs, one at a time, behind a door closed by magnets. On the other side, each time, was a given dog’s respective owner.

Their owners were asked to either sing “You Are My Sunshine” or to feign crying. When the owners “cried,” the pooches pawed the doors open faster, just to try to show their love to their fretting friends.

Scientists had thought dogs would only try to open the door only when the owners were crying, but that turned out not to be the case; they did open the doors three times faster than the dogs with the singing owners, however. In some cases, the sound of their hoomins crying made some dogs freeze — they freaked out because they thought they couldn’t help by getting through the door.

“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,” which was a discovery for the scientists, says lead author Emily Sanford, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

“Dogs have been by the side of humans for tens of thousands of years and they’ve learned to read our social cues. 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.”

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