Any dog owner knows that good pups take excellent care of their humans. But new research suggests that doggos are actually willing to overcome obstacles to help their people when they’re in a crisis.
A July 2018 study published in Learning & Behavior (and appropriately titled “Timmy’s in the well”) analyzed 34 pet dogs of various breeds and sizes, along with their owners. Researchers conducted an experiment in which the owners sat in a room behind a clear door held shut with magnets and either cried or hummed while their pups could both see and hear them. As it turned out, the dogs opened the door three times faster on average when they saw their owner was crying, when compared to pups who opened the door while their owner was simply humming.
“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,” said lead author Emily Sanford, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University, in a press release. “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.”
Sanford, who did the research as an undergraduate at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, said the researchers also measured the dogs’ stress levels throughout the experiment. The pups who were trying to “rescue” their upset owners showed less stress, suggesting that they were prepared to take action despite being upset by their humans’ distress.
As for the doggos who didn’t leap into action? Researchers said that those pups actually showed the highest levels of stress, suggesting that perhaps they were too upset by their owners’ crying to be able to do anything. In other words, it seemed like they cared — but cared too much (someone, please get us the tissues).
“Dogs have been by the side of humans for tens of thousands of years and they’ve learned to read our social cues,” Sanford said. “Dog owners can tell that their dogs sense their feelings. Our findings reinforce that idea.”