Nature

Dogs will rush to our aid, but only if they don’t get too emotional

It turns out Lassie might not be such an outlier: dogs with strong bonds to their owners will hurry to their aid if they know a way to help, a new study suggests.

In an experiment run with a variety of breeds, around half the dogs involved tried to push through a door to get to an owner in distress. In some cases, those that didn’t try to help may have been too stressed out about their owners’ predicaments to take any action.

The research provides another interesting insight into the bond between humans and canines, which we know is a strong one. If your dog often tries to help in times of distress, you haven’t been imagining it.

“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,” says one of the researchers, Emily Sanford from Johns Hopkins University.

“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.”

The study involved 34 pet dogs of various sizes and breeds, including golden retrievers, Labradors, shih tzus and pugs. One at a time, their owners were positioned behind a clear door held shut with magnets.

With the dogs able to see and hear their human companions, the owners were then asked to either hum ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ or start crying for help.

A total of 16 out of the 34 dogs moved to open the door, but this was evenly split between dogs whose owners were humming and dogs whose owners were crying.

There was a difference in speed though – when owners appeared to be in distress, the dogs usually moved much faster to try and get through the door.

You can check out a video clip of one of the experiments below:

Based on a follow-up experiment measuring how often dogs gazed on their owners, it appears that those with a closer bond to their owners were more likely to get up and try and help, even when an obstacle (like a glass door) was in the way.

So why didn’t the other dogs help? It wasn’t that they didn’t care, the researchers suggest, but rather that they perhaps cared too much.

Through owners’ measurements of the pooches’ stress levels during the test, it appears that the dogs who did nothing when their owners needed help were the most troubled canines in the experiment. If the owners are right about their dogs’ stress, it might be that an overabundance of worry caused the dogs to feel paralysed.

The canines that did help out were also shown to be upset by the crying, but not so much that it prevented them taking action.

You’ve probably seen human beings react in the same way in times of stress – some leaping into action, while others are too overwhelmed to be much help at all. This research suggests dogs aren’t much different.

There are some limitations to mention about the research: the sample size was relatively small, and the researchers rather comically point out that the humming and crying abilities of the dog owners did vary considerably.

But even if we can’t say definitively that dogs will always go into full-on Lassie mode when their owners are in trouble, it seems many of them will indeed rush to our aid, as long as they can keep control over their emotions.

For one of the team, psychologist Julia Meyers-Manor from Ripon College in Wisconsin, that finding backs up the interactions she’s had with her own dog – like the time her kids buried her under a pile of pillows and she sent out a mock cry for help.

“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.”

The research has been published in Learning & Behavior.

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