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

October 18, 2019

Early birds may awaken feeling strangely unrested. The Gemini Moon is at odds with Neptune. A dream may linger, unresolved. Use your imagination to revisit the dreamscape and conjure up a happier, more satisfying ending. The day swings into high gear by…
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Alternative Health Directory

Browse all listings »

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

October 2019

Come shine with us! Join us in harmony and in our goal to bring the light of Spiritualism forward to all those who are searching.

Where:
VFW Post 2597
775 Boston Rd, Rt 3A
Billerica, MA
View map »


Sponsor: The Spiritualist Fellowship Church Of New England
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

2nd and 4th Monday of every month This psychic message circle is for anyone wishing to raise their connection using their psychic centers known as the “clairs.” Learn how to use...

Cost: $20

Where:
Messages From Heaven Healing and Learning Center
646 Central Street
Suite 3
Leominster, MA
View map »


Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Free Evidence-Based Holistic Health Education Program at Wilbraham Senior Center The H.E.A.R.T. Program® (Health Empowerment and Real Transformation), created and instructed by Michelle...

Cost: Free

Where:
Wilbraham Senior Center
45 Post Office Park, #4502
Wilbraham, MA  01095
View map »


Sponsor: Harmony Way
Telephone: 413-636-2475
Contact Name: Michelle Caron
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Grades 5-8 Instructor: Kari Pike Wednesdays, 10/16–11/20, 4pm-5pm (6 sessions) Do you ever feel overwhelmed before a test, or when you are working on a difficult homework...

Cost: $125

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


Telephone: 781-797-0389
Contact Name: Creative Spirit
Website »

More information

Join us at our free boot camp specifically for post-divorce issues! Make new connections while learning essential strategies for building your post-divorce life with confidence and peace of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Skylark Law & Mediation, PC
9 Main Street
Southborough, MA  01772
View map »


Sponsor: Vesta: Redefining Divorce
Telephone: 508-744-6014
Contact Name: Deanna Coyle
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Sleep is one of the most under-appreciated ways to heal the body and improve your health. Getting 8 hours of sleep, more or less, is not enough if it is not good quality sleep. This class will...

Cost: $20

Where:
Open Circle Acupuncture & Healing
411 West Main Street, Suite 2R (rear of building)
Northborough, MA  01532
View map »


Sponsor: Open Circle Acupuncture & Healing
Telephone: 508-393-1212
Contact Name: Kim Flaherty
Website »

More information

Are you separated, divorced, considering divorce, or in the process of divorce? Vesta welcomes you to another of our Divorce Resource Nights! These free events are educational, social and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Leading Edge Real Estate
2 Mount Vernon Street
Winchester, MA  01890
View map »


Sponsor: Vesta: Redefining Divorce
Telephone: 508-744-6014
Contact Name: Deanna Coyle
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Integrate the pelvic floor into your classes with confidence with Cristin Zaimes. Pelvic floor dysfunction is incredibly common, but not very well understood. People often feel embarrassed or...

Cost: $45

Where:
YogaLife Institute of NH
6 Chestnut Street
Lower Level
Exeter, NH  03833
View map »


Sponsor: YogaLife Institute of NH
Telephone: 603-867-3969
Contact Name: Alice Bentley
Website »

More information

Come and see what this is all about! You will be glad you did. Free to see the demo! Registration required, call 207-221-2363. Here is a podcast for you! What is KCR?...

Cost: Free

Where:
Leapin' Lizards
449 Forest Ave
Portland, ME  04101
View map »


Telephone: 207-221-2363
Website »

More information

The modern science of epigenetics is providing evidence that the patterns of self-sabotage, isolation, chronic illness, depression, addiction, challenges in relationship or an inability to prosper...

Cost: $27

Where:
Circles of Wisdom
386 Merrimack Street, #1A
Methuen, MA  01844
View map »


Sponsor: Circles of Wisdom
Telephone: 978-474-8010
Contact Name: Cathy Kneeland
Website »

More information

Facilitator: Peyton Pugmire Fridays, 9/20, 10/18, 11/15, 12/20, 9:30am–10:30am Everyone leaves with a powerful message to inspire their weekend!  Join Peyton Pugmire,...

Cost: Pay What You Wish

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


Telephone: 781-797-0389
Contact Name: Creative Spirit
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

In just one day you will come away with valuable knowledge about the issues associated with separation and divorce, increasingly aware of your next steps in the process, bolstered by the new...

Where:
Burns & Levinson
1 Citizens Plaza
Suite 1100
Providence, RI  02903
View map »


Sponsor: Vesta: Redefining Divorce
Telephone: (508) 333-3191
Website »

More information

Explore your psychic awareness in this fun and informative workshop Designed specifically for people who are awakening to their own psychic senses, this class will provide you with personalized,...

Cost: $125

Where:
The Mills at Salmon Falls
3 Front Street
Lower Mill
Rollinsford, NH  03869
View map »


Sponsor: Raylene Sousa Medium LLC
Telephone: 207-956-0220
Contact Name: Raylene Sousa
Website »

More information

Join us at Vesta’s One-Day Divorce Retreat in Providence, RI! In just one day you will come away with valuable knowledge about the issues associated with separation and divorce,...

Cost: $149

Where:
Burns & Levinson
1 Citizens Plaza
Suite 1100
Providence, RI  02903
View map »


Sponsor: Vesta: Redefining Divorce
Telephone: 508-744-6014
Contact Name: Deanna Coyle
Website »

More information

Facilitator: Jamie Berg Adult Level Do you have too much stuff? Would you like to manage all of your stuff with ease? In this workshop you will learn how to KonMari and you will...

Cost: $50

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


Telephone: 781-797-0389
Contact Name: Creative Spirit
Website »

More information

Every time we see a giggling baby or an innocent child full of laughter, we're reminded that we are all born with this natural and innate sense of happiness, that it is actually our birthright....

Cost: $108 early-bird price ($120 after October 12)

Where:
Unity Farm Sanctuary
30 Lyman Street, Suite 108B
Westborough shopping center
Sherborn, MA  01581
View map »


Sponsor: www.SOHUM.org
Telephone: 508-329-3338
Contact Name: Ritu Kapur
Website »

More information

Led by Chuck Raffoni ( E-RYT200) named a “person making postiive change in the world for the LGBTQ Community” by Pride Connections and featured on NBC's TODAY SHOW for teaching...

Cost: $50

Where:
KJ Fitness
Tewksbury , MA


Sponsor: YogaWithChuck.Com
Contact Name: Chuck
Website »

More information

Steven Farmer, PhD Here’s a great opportunity to not only clear out the psychic debris that has attached to your soul body as you journeyed through life but also retrieve and reintegrate...

Cost: $77

Where:
Circles of Wisdom
386 Merrimack Street, #1A
Methuen, MA  01844
View map »


Sponsor: Circles of Wisdom
Telephone: 978-474-8010
Contact Name: Cathy Kneeland
Website »

More information

October 19–25 Join Seth Monk and Candita Carracci Mamet for a week of yoga, meditation, personal growth and relaxation.

Where:
Sivananda Ashram Yoga Center
Paradise Island, Bahamas, MA


Website »

More information

Reiki Master Teacher Libby Barnett, M.S.W., integrates her healing skills with past experience as a medical social worker at Massachusetts General Hospital. 38 years experience. Reiki...

Where:
Concord, MA


Telephone: 603-654-2787
Website »

More information

Here’s a great opportunity to not only clear out the psychic debris that has attached to your soul body as you journeyed through life but also retrieve and reintegrate those soul fragments...

Where:
Methuen, MA


Telephone: (978) 474-8010
Website »

More information

Learn to overcome spinal tensions through therapeutic postures, designed to decompress your spine and relieve pain. Taught by a certified yoga therapist, classes bring you through poses...

Cost: 5/$50

Where:
Bliss Through Yoga
484 Bedford St
East Bridgewater, MA  02333
View map »


Telephone: 508-331-3564
Contact Name: Janice O'Brien
Website »

More information

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