Lending A Helping Paw: Dogs Will Aid Their Crying Human


Published:

From Lassie to Balto, pop culture loves stories of a dog coming to a person’s rescue. Anecdotally, people experience their dogs coming to their aid every day, like when one of us found herself “trapped” by her children under a pile of pillows only to be “rescued” by her noble collie, Athos.

But is there any scientific evidence behind these sorts of tales?

Researchers know that dogs respond to human crying and will approach people – whether their owner or a total stranger – who show signs of distress. We decided to investigate whether dogs would go a step further than just approaching people: Would they take action to help a person in need?

Dog/Human Partners Come Into The Lab

We recruited 34 pet dogs and therapy dogs – that is, those who visit people in hospitals and nursing homes – to take part in our study. Dogs included a variety of breeds and ages, from an elderly golden retriever therapy dog to an adolescent spaniel mix.

When they got to the lab, each owner filled out a survey about the dog’s training and behaviors while we attached a heart rate monitor to the dog’s chest to measure its stress responses.

In the experimental setup, dogs could see and hear their owners.

Next, we instructed the owner on how to behave during the experiment. Each owner sat in a chair behind a clear door that was magnetized shut – there as a barrier separating the dog from its owner – that the dog could easily push open. We assigned half the people to cry loudly and say “Help” in a distressed voice every 15 seconds. The other half of our volunteers we assigned to hum “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and say “Help” in a calm voice every 15 seconds. We ran the test until the dog opened the door or, if it didn’t, until five minutes elapsed.

Past research seemed to indicate that dogs would not help their human companions in distress, but it’s possible that the tasks to demonstrate “help” were too difficult for a dog to understand. So we adapted this straightforward task from previous research in rats. It seemed like dogs would be capable of nudging open a door to access their owners.

Lassie, Timmy’s Crying In The Other Room

We expected to find that dogs would open the door more often if their owner was crying than if they were humming. Surprisingly, that isn’t what we found: About half the dogs opened the door, regardless of which condition they were in, which tells us that dogs in both conditions wanted to be near their owners.

I’m on my way! Emily Sanford and Julia Meyers-Manor, CC BY-NDWhen we looked at how quickly the dogs who opened the door did so, we found a stark difference: In the crying condition, dogs took an average of 23 seconds to open the door, while in the control condition, they took more than a minute and a half. The humans’ crying seemed to affect the dogs’ behaviors, taking just a quarter as long to push open the door and get to their human if they seemed distressed. We did not find any differences between therapy dogs and other pet dogs.

Other interesting results came when we looked into how the dogs were behaving in each condition. In the crying condition, we found the dogs that opened the door showed fewer signs of stress – and were reported by their owners to be less anxious – than dogs that did not open it. We also found that dogs that opened the door more quickly were less stressed than dogs that took longer to open it.

In contrast, dogs in the humming condition showed a slight tendency to open more quickly if they were reported to be more anxious. This may mean that dogs who opened in the humming condition were seeking their owners for their own comfort.

Helping Requires More Than Just Empathy

Because both humans and animals tend to be more empathetic toward individuals with whom they are more familiar or close, we thought that the strength of a dog’s bond with its owner might explain some of the differences we saw in dogs’ empathetic responses.

As soon as the test was over, we let the dog and owner reunite and cuddle for a few minutes to make sure everyone was calm before the next part of the experiment. Next, we turned to a test called the Impossible Task to learn a bit more about each dog’s emotional bond with its person.

In this task, the dog learns to tip over a jar to get to a treat; then we lock the jar onto a board with a treat inside and record whether the dog gazes at its owner or a stranger. There have been some mixed results with this test, but the idea is that a dog who spends more time looking at their owner during this task may have a stronger bond with their owner than a dog that doesn’t spend much time looking at their owner.

Hey, a little help down here for your furry friend? Julia Meyers-Manor and Emily Sanford, CC BY-NDWe found that dogs who opened the door in the crying condition did gaze at their owner more during the Impossible Task than non-openers. On the other hand, it was the dogs who didn’t open the door in the humming condition that gazed at their owners more than those who opened it. This suggests that openers in the crying condition and non-openers in the humming condition had the strongest relationships with their owners.

Taken together, we interpreted these results as evidence that dogs were behaving empathetically in response to their crying owners. To behave empathetically toward another individual, you must not only be aware of the distress of another person, but also suppress your own stress enough to help out. If you are overwhelmingly stressed, you might either be incapacitated or try to leave the situation entirely. This pattern has been seen in children, where the most empathetic kids are the ones who are skilled at regulating their own emotional states enough to give help.

It appears to be the case with these dogs as well. Dogs with weaker emotional bonds to their owners, and those that perceived their owners’ distress but were unable to suppress their own stress response, may have been too overwhelmed by the situation to provide any help.

While everyone hopes their dog would help them if they ever were in trouble, we found that many of the dogs did not. People involved in our experiment, particularly those with dogs that didn’t open the door, told us many stories of their dogs coming to their aid in the past. Our study suggests that in some cases if your dog doesn’t help you, it’s not a sign he doesn’t love you; Fido might just love you too much.

Professor Julia Meyers-Manor received her bachelors in Psychology from Macalester College and her doctorate in Cognitive and Biological Psychology from the University of Minnesota in 2009. After working as the dog training school director at the Animal Humane Society in the Twin Cities, she worked at Macalester College as a Visiting Assistant Professor. She now works at Ripon College as an Assistant Professor of Psychology.

Emily is a graduate student in Psychology and Brain Sciences. She is interested in studying magnitude systems and the visual number sense using computational models. Prior to graduate school, Emily studied empathy in dogs at Macalester College.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

See also:
Why Losing A Dog Can Be Harder Than Losing A Relative Or Friend
Dr. Murphy Is In: The Value of Pet-Assisted Therapy

Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Daily Astrology

August 17, 2018

The waxing Scorpio Moon makes a nifty series of supportive aspects. The early morning is especially inspiring. A lunar conjunction with Jupiter fosters self-assurance, optimism and faith in others. Both stars are in a favorable trine to mystical Neptune…
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Alternative Health Directory

Browse all listings »

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

August 2018

A fantastic shopping and educational experience for the whole family! Vendors come from New England, across the US, and many foreign countries to exhibit minerals, fossils, gemstones, jewelry,...

Cost: $8 adults, under 13 free

Where:
Eastern States Exposition
1305 Memorial Ave.
West Springfield, MA  01089
View map »


Sponsor: LLD Productions, Inc.
Telephone: 505-867-0425
Contact Name: Regina Aumente
Website »

More information

Readings, healings, vendors, presentations.

Cost: Free

Where:
Hilton Garden Inn
85 Glastonbury Blvd.
South Glastonbury, CT  06066
View map »


Website »

More information

During the weekend of August 10-12, 2018 we will gather again at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts for the 44th Annual NOFA SC. This immersive annual gathering is an opportunity to come...

Cost: See website

Where:
Hampshire College
Amherst, MA


Sponsor: Northeast Organic Farming Association
Telephone: 774-262-7986
Contact Name: Marjorie Bailey
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

August 13 - 17, 9am - 1pm Instructor: Peyton Pugmire For student entering grades 6-8 iPhones are amazing, but you know what’s even more amazing? You! During this imaginative week...

Cost: $250

Where:
Creative Spirit
80 Washington Street
Marblehead, MA  01945
View map »


Sponsor: Creative Spirit
Telephone: 781-797-0389
Website »

More information

August 13 - 16 Juan Li has been teaching Daoist energy practices for the last 27 years. He has created a sequence of practices based on the I Ching, adapted to the emotional and mental...

Cost: $950 single retreat; $1650 for both retreats (8/16)

Where:
Angels’ Rest Retreat
63 North County Road
Leyden, MA  01337
View map »


Sponsor: Tao Retreats
Telephone: 212-243-6771
Contact Name: Sharon Smith
Website »

More information

August 13 - 14 This fun and exciting healing workshop guarantees you valuable knowledge and powerful skills to keep you in a higher vibration of energy and flowing with infinite intelligence and...

Where:
Royal Plaza Best Western
Marlborough, MA


Sponsor: Geozuwa
Telephone: 646-606-9935
Website »

More information

August 13 - 21 With NLP training and master healer certification. This course is specifically designed for healers of every modality. For information call (646) 606-9935 or visit...

Where:
Marlboro, MA


Telephone: 646-606-9935
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

August 14 - 24 For millennia people have entered the wilderness to encounter Spirit and seek their direction, purpose, or medicine. If you are seeking guidance and renewal, or you’re...

Cost: $1295

Where:
Somerset Lake
P.O. Box 48
Putney, VT  05346
View map »


Sponsor: Circles of Air and Stone
Telephone: 802-387-6624
Contact Name: Sparrow Hart
Website »

More information

What better way to end a busy day than with a little bliss. We'll support your body right where it is today and help you to open your spine to find more movement and flexibility. Begin and end...

Cost: $18

Where:
Body Love Wellness Center
484 Bedford St
East Bridgewater, MA  02333
View map »


Sponsor: Bliss Through Yoga
Telephone: 508-331-3564
Contact Name: Janice
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Yoga is an ancient behavioral practice that allows for the development and enhancement of mind-body skills and behavioral factors including physical functioning, self-regulation of internal...

Cost: Free

Where:
CIC Cambridge
One Broadway
Charles Conference Room, 14th Floor
Cambridge, MA  02142
View map »


Sponsor: CIC Wellness
Telephone: 617-953-0674
Contact Name: Shakti Rowan
Website »

More information

Barbara Macias will present an information workshop on the benefits of essential oils. A demonstration of the oils will be included. Please RSVP at katboston@comcast.net

Cost: Free

Where:
NBA Business Center
145 Washington Street
Route 53
Norwell, MA  02061
View map »


Sponsor: Mind Balance Hypnosis
Telephone: 339-788-1193
Contact Name: Kathryn Caruso

More information

Relax and restore this summer with free outdoor yoga classes on historic Rogers Field! We’re packing the lawn with yogis of all levels for yoga led by experienced practitioners from Dragonfly...

Cost: Free

Where:
Rogers Field
Devens, MA


Sponsor: Dragonfly Wellness Center
Telephone: 978-487-7181
Contact Name: Anne Ferguson
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

August 16 - 19 Magnetic-harmonic vibrational therapist, Jay Emmanuel, A.K., N.S.,V.M. shares powerful energy techniques that use the forces of sounds produced by the human voice in combination...

Cost: Please see our website

Where:
Eastover Estate & Retreat Center
430 East St.
Lenox, MA  01240
View map »


Telephone: 866-264-5139
Contact Name: Yingxing Wang
Website »

More information

August 16 - 19 Juan Li has been teaching Daoist energy practices for the last 27 years. He has created a sequence of practices based on the I Ching, adapted to the emotional and mental...

Cost: $950 single retreat; $1650 for both retreats (8/13)

Where:
Angels’ Rest Retreat
63 North County Road
Leyden, MA  01337
View map »


Sponsor: Tao Retreats
Telephone: 212-243-6771
Contact Name: Sharon Smith
Website »

More information

Daily practice for peace, healing, Christ mindedness, meditation, awakening.

Where:
Milton, MA


Telephone: 617-696-5685
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

With June Edward, “The Massachusette Medium” This is a mediumship gallery with June Edward, the “Massachusetts Medium!” Have you ever wanted to talk to someone on the...

Cost: $55 on Eventbrite, $60 at door

Where:
Plymouth Lodge AF & AM
116 S Meadow Rd
Plymouth, MA  02360
View map »


Sponsor: June Edward “The Massachusetts Medium”
Telephone: 508-259-1231
Contact Name: June Edward
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Guide: Peyton Pugmire Ages 16+ Like meditating with a paintbrush! Escape your stress and routine and re-connect with yourself, your heart and soul - one brushstroke at a time. This fun...

Cost: $85 (includes cost of all supplies)

Where:
Creative Spirit
80 Washington Street
Marblehead, MA  01945
View map »


Telephone: 781-797-0389
Contact Name: Peyton Pugmire
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags