Side Note

Dogs always know when you’re sad, but only some rush to your aid

If your dog truly loves you, the mere sight of you crying could either send it springing into action or stress it out so much it stops dead in its tracks. This is all according to a study published on Tuesday in peer-reviewed journal Learning & Behavior, which is somehow actually titled “Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs.” The study found that dogs who are closely bonded with their owners will go out of their way to provide comfort if they see their human is clearly upset, because they can tell.

"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 help to them," Emily Sanford, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of the study, said in a statement. "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’s team looked at whether dogs of a variety of breeds would provide help when faced with a crying owner. The study involved 34 dogs and their owners, who were separated by a clear door forced shut with magnets. One group of humans was instructed to cry while their dogs watched, while the other hummed "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" as a control. Researchers used data gathered from the dogs’ behavioral and physiological responses (like door opening speed and heart rate variability) in order to gauge each pup’s level of emotional distress.

The study found that the dogs exposed to their owners’ sobs were significantly more stressed than those merely faced with hums. The stressed dogs fell into two main categories: those who were upset by the crying, but not too upset to race through the door and comfort their owner, and those who appeared to be too upset by the sight of their owner’s tears to do anything at all. The former group opened the door three times faster than any of the dogs from the humming group.

"Dogs have been by the side of humans for tens of thousands of years and they've learned to read our social cues," said Sanford. "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."