Don’t count on your dog to go get help if you fall down a well

Farmer: What's that, Lassie?

Lassie: Woof, woof, woof!

Farmer: Timmy fell down the well?!

Lassie: Woof!

Farmer: That’s the third time this month, right?

Lassie: Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof. Woof, woof, woof, woof.

Farmer: I agree. Let him get himself out.

            —A well-known joke dating back to the classic 1950s show, Lassie.

That joke is a part of pop culture, but ironically, the only character on Lassie who ever fell down a well and had to be rescued was . . . well, Lassie.

But it does beg a two-part question: Can dogs feel empathy for humans in trouble, and if so, will they do anything to help? Researchers at Macalester College in Minnesota tried to answer that question in a new study titled (somewhat confusingly, as it turns out) “Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs.”

The study suggests that, if their owners are in distress, many dogs will overcome an obstacle to try and reach them.

The researchers recruited 34 dogs of assorted breeds and sizes to help them conduct a simple experiment. Half of the dogs had been trained as therapy dogs, the rest had not.

Each dog was led into an empty room where he could see his owner sitting behind a clear glass door on the other side. Magnets held the door shut, which means the dogs could open it simply by pushing on it.

The experiment had two parts. The owners were first instructed to say “Help” every 15 seconds while pretending to cry in between to simulate distress. Then they were told to say help every 15 seconds while humming Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star in between, but without any display of emotion.

The dogs’ stress levels were monitored during the experiment by measuring their heartrate and observing behavioral changes.

The researchers wanted to see if the dogs would open the door more often and more quickly if their owner was crying (i.e., visibly and aurally upset) than if they were acting normally (i.e., humming an innocuous tune).

The results were mixed.

About half of the of dogs pushed open the door when they saw their owners, whether they were crying or not. But significantly, the dogs who did open the door were quicker to do so in the crying scenario than in the humming one—three times quicker on average. And the stronger the emotional bond between dog and owner, which was measured in a separate test, the more likely the dogs were to rush to their aid.

Of course, as the study notes, none of the owners were actually crying; they were only pretending to. It also notes that some owners “were significantly more convincing” criers than others.

“We found dogs not only sense what their owners are feeling, [but] if a dog knows a way to help them, [he’ll] go through barriers to [do it],” coauthor Emily Sanford, currently a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, said in a statement.

But that doesn’t mean the dogs who didn’t open the door when they saw their owners crying were indifferent, either—in fact, their stress levels were actually higher on average than the dogs who opened the door in the crying scenario.

This led the researchers to theorize that the non-door-opening dogs might have been too upset by their owners’ apparent distress to figure out how to open the door. The door-opening dogs “were able to suppress their own distress response, thus enabling them to open the door more quickly,” the researchers wrote.

Prior studies have found dogs to be highly responsive to human crying, but this is the first to show that dogs who detect emotional distress will hurry to do something about it.

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

Unless, of course, you happen to fall down a well. Because if history is any guide, Lassie beat you to it.

Photo credit: © iStock/Анатолий Тушенцов

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