Study: Dogs Morph Into Heroic First Responders At Sound Of Owners’ Cries

BALTIMORE — With their wagging tails, slobbery kisses and unconditional cuddles, our beloved best friends are dedicated to making us feel like top dogs. But just how loyal to you is your precious pooch? Would he or she instinctively push doors open to rescue you should you need help? Believe it or not, they might just do that — and a lot more, according to a new study.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University tested the extent dogs would go to check upon the state of a crying owner, measuring just how far and fast they’d go to get to their loved ones.

“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,” says lead author Emily Sanford, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences at the university, in a statement.

Previous studies explained canines’ strong reactions to human crying, but this study sought to demonstrate the science behind the speedy responses.

“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,” explains Sanford.

The idea for the research occurred to study coauthor Julia Meyers-Manor while she was playing with her kids. Buried under piles of pillows by her children, she called out for help. The next thing she knew, her faithful friend had rushed to her side. “My husband didn’t come rescue me, but, within a few seconds, my collie had dug me out of the pillows,” she recalls. “I knew that we had to do a study to test that more formally.”

Pet dogs and their owners were invited to participate in the test. The 34 dogs monitored in the study ranged in size from small dogs, such as Shih Tzus and pugs, to larger companion dogs, like golden retrievers and Labradors. There were also some mixed-breed dogs. Owners were placed, one at a time, behind a clear door that was held shut by magnets. The dogs were able to see and hear their owners, who were asked either to hum “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or to cry.

Researchers wanted to know whether the dogs were more likely to open the door if their owners were crying rather than humming. Although this did not happen, the dogs who did open the door at the sound of crying did so at three times the speed of those responding to humming.

The authors also measured the dogs’ stress levels during the test, and found that the dogs who were able to reach their crying owners showed lower levels of stress than non-responsive dogs. They believe this means that, though the dogs were bothered by the crying, their stress was alleviated because they were able to take action.

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It might seem that the dogs who did not open the door did not care. But, in fact, the dogs with the highest stress levels were the ones frozen in their tracks, unable to physically react to the sound of their humans in distress.

“Dogs have been by the side of humans for tens of thousands of years and they’ve learned to read our social cues,” explains 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.”

Not all dogs may be as famous as Lassie or Toto, but there is one thing most dog owners know: In this dog-eat-dog world, your furry friend just makes you feel doggone good, and probably just a little safer.

The full study was published July 23, 2018 in the journal Learning & Behavior.