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Dogs can interpret owners’ feelings and show empathy, study suggests

WASHINGTON — Does your dog know how you’re feeling? A small study suggests those that have strong bonds with their owners do.

“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,” said lead author Emily Sanford of Johns Hopkins University in a news release.

The research published in the journal Learning & Behavior involved 34 dogs of various breeds separated from owners by a clear, magnet-secured door. The owners were instructed either to hum the song “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or to cry. Of the dogs that pushed through the doors, the ones responding to owners who were crying acted three times more quickly.

“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 help them,” said Sanford, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University who did the research as an undergraduate at Macalester College.

The experiment was prompted by the behavior displayed by the pet of co-author Julia Meyers-Manor, a former faculty member at Macalester who is now an assistant professor of psychology at Ripon College.

While playing with her children, Meyers-Manor was buried in pillows by her kids and began calling for help as if in distress.

“My husband didn’t come rescue me, but, within a few seconds, my collie had dug me out of the pillows,” she said in a news release. “I knew that we had to do a study to test that more formally.”

The study’s title, “Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs,” refers to an American cultural icon: Lassie, the canine superhero of 1950s TV, known for rushing to retrieve help for her person Timmy, a boy who had fallen down a well.

The research team also included Emma R. Burt, who’s now a research technician at Cleveland Clinic.


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