Anyone who watched the long-running TV show “Lassie” or the movie “Benji” knows that no barrier could stop those dogs from helping their humans.
It turns out there’s some fact to that fiction.
That’s the conclusion of a recently published study called — in a nod to Lassie — “Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs” co-authored by a now-Johns Hopkins University graduate student.
Many dog owners have a story about their dog comforting or coming to aid them or even a stranger in a time of need. A Google search of “dog helps human” turns up hundreds of millions of hits.
Hoot worries if I sneeze. Fortunately, I don’t have allergies. He comes right in and put his face in my face to see if I’m OK.— Gayle Bragg, talking about her 3-year-old goldendoodle
But the new study takes what’s known about canine empathy another step and suggests that not only will dogs try to help, they will overcome obstacles to do it. The study furthers the science on the bond between dogs and humans but also could lead to better animal models for research into human disorders.
“There was a gap to be filled,” said Emily Sanford, a Hopkins graduate student in psychological and brain sciences who did the research as an undergraduate at Macalester College in Minnesota. “Dogs will help. But would dogs be motivated to help someone who needed help if there was a barrier? Other studies had a hard time finding evidence, but maybe the tasks were too difficult.”
The theory was tested by Sanford and Julia Meyers-Manor, a former faculty member at Macalester who is now an assistant professor of psychology at Ripon College in Wisconsin. The pair wanted to devise an obstacle that was a true barrier but not too confusing or too hard to overcome.
They placed dogs on one side of a see-through door from their owners and had the owners alternately cry or hum “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” The dogs could see and hear them. About half the dogs came through the door, attached with magnets, but they came four times faster when their owner cried.
There was no difference among breeds, and the study’s 34 test subjects included everything from golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers to Shih Tzus and pugs.
The researchers also measured the stress level of the dogs, using heart rate and other behavioral signs described by the owners, and found all felt at least some stress from having been separated from their owners and handled by strangers in a strange place.
Those who were less stressed were able to bust through the door and “rescue” their owners. Those who were more stressed couldn’t manage to do much about the problem, even if they appeared as though they wanted to.
That, Sanford said, is also an issue with humans facing extremely distressing situations.
The pair got the idea for the study when Meyers-Manor was playing with her children several years ago. The kids buried her under pillows, and when she called for help her husband didn’t come but her collie rushed in and tried to uncover her. She wanted to test whether this was a general dog reaction.
“I’ve always been interested in the human-animal bond — how do we have this unique relationship with dogs?” she said.
The information can be useful to understand the role of empathy in motivating the animals, she said. It also could help in developing more useful animal models to study human disorders such as autism, which can be characterized by a lack of empathy, Meyers-Manor said.
Next, she plans to test whether dogs would respond so quickly, and overcome barriers, to aid strangers or other dogs.
The research builds on many other studies of empathetic dogs, including research that has shown dogs are responsive to people crying. One 2012 British study published in Animal Cognition, for example, found that when a stranger pretended to cry, dogs would go to the stranger and sniff, nuzzle and lick the person rather than seek comfort from their owners in a stressful environment.
That’s certainly what Hoot would do. The 3-year-old goldendoodle is a therapy dog for Fidos for Freedom, a nonprofit that supplies hearing dogs, service dogs and therapy dogs in the Baltimore-Washington area. So willing is Hoot, and his owner Gayle Bragg, that the dog also puts in time at Paws4Comfort, the American Red Cross and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Initially envisioned as a pet, Hoot lives with Bragg, a substitute teacher, in Columbia. She put him to work when she discovered how attuned to others’ feelings and needs he was. She said he knows when she’s been sitting at the computer too long and comes over to nudge her up. He would, no doubt, go through a door to get to her if she were in distress, she said.
Bragg, who has participated in studies with Hoot, said there is much to be gained from dogs for their owner’s benefit and the well being of strangers. Hoot seems to understand the level of comfort needed not only by her, she said, but by small children encountered in reading programs, older people in senior living facilities and those with emotional and physical disorders, including veterans.
He dials up or down his energy and enthusiasm for helping, depending on the person and the situation, Bragg said. Sometimes he’ll put his head in a lap and other times he’ll play or even let a child tug on his ears or lie on his belly.
“It’s hard to put into words; they just sense,” Bragg said. “Hoot worries if I sneeze. Fortunately, I don’t have allergies. He comes right in and put his face in my face to see if I’m OK. Dogs and their people have this nonverbal bond and end up reading each other’s signals. Hoot is very generous, but dogs, they are just naturally empathetic.”
Such dog behavior comes as little surprise to researcher Meyers-Manor.
“For sure, they are your best friend,” she said.