Study shows dogs will go out of their way to help owners in emotional distress

(NEW YORK) — It’s no surprise to dog owners, but now it’s scientifically sound: 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 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.

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; however, they did open the doors three times faster than the dogs with the singing owners. In some cases, the sound of their owners crying made some dogs freeze.

“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, according to 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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