How can one reliably brighten an otherwise dreary day? Many people consider their dogs to be their greatest friends, and they may see this as quality time with their canine companions. And if recent research is to be believed, Fido could be more than willing to lend a paw.
According to previous studies, canine companions share their owners’ emotional discomfort when their human owners weep. According to the latest research, canines not only get upset when they see their human companions experiencing emotional discomfort, but they also actively seek to comfort them.
The results were published in the July 24 issue of Learning and Behavior.
As part of the study, scientists invited 34 dog owners and their pets of varying sizes and varieties to the laboratory. Dogs were left in a room with their owners, who were instructed to sit behind a glass door so the animals could see and hear them and repeat the word “Help” every 15 seconds in a monotonous or frantic tone.
In trials when the pet owners were pretending to be in no immediate danger, they were instructed to hum “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” between their simulated pleas for aid. They were instructed to create sobbing noises in between calls during trials when they were required to seem distressed. The pups’ responses in both settings were recorded on film, and the researchers also assessed the dogs’ heart rates 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 little touch from a paw or nose.
Dogs did not respond more often to owners’ sobbing than to their humming, according to the study’s findings. Assistant professor of psychology at Ripon College and senior research author Julia Meyers-Manor stated, “Dogs desire to be with their owners, therefore even in our situation when the dogs were exposed to humming, they still roughly half of the time went to their owners.”
In contrast, Meyers-Manor found that the dogs that did open the door did so around 40 seconds quicker while their owners were sobbing than when they were humming.
Dogs who pushed through the door exhibited less stress than those that didn’t penetrate the door, as determined by comparing their actions while they saw and heard their masters weep with their typical actions. The number of “stressful behaviors” the dogs displayed each second provided a quantitative measure of this phenomenon for the researchers.
Meyers-Manor told Live Science that the dogs that stayed outside the door “seemed to get immobilized and [were] not able to do anything” as the stress from the wailing increased. She did point out, however, that the scientists saw a wide variety of behavior, including dogs that paid no attention to their owners’ screams.
Meyers-Manor stated that in order to obtain a solid readout, you normally need around 2 minutes of data, therefore the researchers detected some fluctuation in heart rate among the stressed dogs. In several instances, however, the dogs opened the door after just 20 seconds, terminating the experiment.
The authors acknowledged that the research had certain caveats, including the fact that people’s skills to fake distress signals varied. What this means is that not everyone can pull off an effective performance.
Attempting the Impossible
The investigation culminated in an “impossible job” test, which researchers say accurately reflects a dog’s dedication 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. The humans in the room, both the owners and the outsiders, stopped moving and glanced across the room at each other, avoiding eye contact with the dog. Food was hidden below a jar on the device, and the dogs were trained to move the container to get it. After a few attempts, the lid was fitted back onto the jar, preventing the dogs from gaining access 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 much more time staring at their owners after failing to retrieve the food. This finding “may have a greater link with their owner than non-openers in the distress condition,” the researchers said, whereas the inverse was true for the humming task. Dogs that didn’t open the door looked at their owners more often than those who did while their humans were humming.
But why did dogs with closer relationships to their owners tend to open the door when their humans were weeping but not when they were humming? The authors speculated that the finding was “reflective of empathy.”
However, as Meyers-Manor points out, it is hard to draw such a definitive conclusion. It’s also not obvious if dogs really wish to cheer up their humans or are merely acting on their own emotional needs.
Meyers-Manor noted that canines have been shown to react negatively to recordings of human or canine crying, even those of strangers or babies. 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].
Aims of the Present Research “This research helps support what many owners already experience,” Meyers-Manor remarked, “[that] their dogs are receptive to them when they are upset… and that they do everything they can to lessen the impact “distress.