When the going gets rough, what can you count on to brighten your day? Spending time with one’s furry best friend is a special treat for many dog owners. And if recent research is to be believed, Fido would be more than eager to provide a paw.
Previous studies have indicated that when their owners weep, dogs experience similar emotions. It has recently been shown via research that when dogs see their owners’ emotional suffering, they not only experience empathy for them but also attempt to comfort them.
Today’s (July 24) issue of Learning and Behavior contains the study’s results.
For the experiment, researchers invited 34 dog owners and their canine companions to the lab. The humans sat (excellent idea!) behind a glass door so the dogs could see and hear them, and they were instructed to repeat the word “Help” every 15 seconds in a monotone or an urgent tone. [Pictures of the Most Popular Pets in the U.S.]
Pet owners were instructed to hum “Twinkle, Twinkl
e Little Star” in between simulated pleas for assistance during trials in which they acted as if they were in no real danger. In trials when they were required to seem upset, they were also instructed to create weeping noises in between calls. The dogs’ responses in both settings were recorded on film, and their heart rates were monitored for signs of stress.
The dogs could also get through to their humans since the door was kept shut by three tiny magnets and could be opened with a gentle paw or nose contact.
Dogs did not respond more often to their owners’ crying than to their humming, according to the study’s findings. Assistant professor of psychology at Ripon College and senior research author Julia Meyers-Manor said, “Dogs desire to be with their owners, therefore even in our scenario when the dogs were exposed to humming, they still roughly half of the time went to their owners.”
Those canines who did manage to open the door did so around 40 seconds quicker while their owners were sobbing compared to when they were humming, Meyers-Manor said.
Additionally, the researchers observed that the dogs who pushed through the door exhibited less stress than the dogs who didn’t penetrate the door by comparing their actions while they watched and heard their owners weep with how they regularly acted. To do so, they counted how many times each dog “exhibited stressed behaviors” in a given amount of time.
Meyers-Manor told Live Science that the canines who remained outside the door “seemed to get immobilized and [were] not able to do anything” as the tension of the wailing increased. However, she did point out that the scientists saw a wide variety of behaviors, including some dogs who seemed oblivious to their owners’ pleading.
Researchers also detected fluctuation in the heart rates of the stressed dogs; however, this data was a little more challenging to interpret since, as Meyers-Manor said, you normally need around 2 minutes of data to obtain a solid reading. However, in several instances, the dogs opened the door after just 20 seconds, terminating the experiment prematurely.
The authors acknowledged that the research had certain caveats, including the fact that people’s skills to fake distress signals varied. That is to say, not everyone can pull off an effective performance.
A mission impossible
The research culminated in an “impossible job” test, which was designed to evaluate how closely bonded a dog is to its master. During this part of the exercise, dogs were brought into a room where both their human companion and a complete stranger stood behind a series of tests. None of the people in the room, including the dog’s owners and the strangers, moved from their positions and looked at the animal directly. To get food from behind the device, the dogs were trained to move a jar. It took a few tries, but eventually, the jar’s top was put on tight enough to prevent the dogs from getting to the food within.
In that last scenario, the researchers discovered that the dogs that had opened the door when they heard their owners sobbing spent far longer staring at their owners after failing to retrieve the food. The researchers speculated that this would indicate that “openers in the distress condition may have a greater attachment with their owner than non-openers,” whereas the converse was true for the humming job. The dogs that didn’t open the door looked at their owners more while their humans were humming than the canines who did.
When their owners were sad, the dogs with the strongest relationships were more likely to open the door, but when their owners were happy, the opposite was true. The findings may be “reflective of empathy,” the scientists stated.
But, as Meyers-Manor pointed out, it’s hard to say for sure. It’s also not quite obvious if dogs really wish to cheer up their humans or are merely acting out of their own emotional need for comfort.
Meyers-Manor noted that canines have been demonstrated to react negatively when exposed to recordings of human or canine crying. She said, “I believe that they have a general reaction to this weeping,” but, “I think that taking the step to perform the rescue may be a little bit more depending on [the] bond [with their owners].
The purpose of this research was to “support what many pet owners already know, that their dogs react to them when they’re upset,” Meyers-Manor said. , and that they do everything they can to lessen the impact “distress.