Will your dog help you if you really need it? Scientists have uncovered the answer.

Scientists have just tested whether there is truth in the notion that dogs have a prosocial and empathetic nature. The takeaway: Many dogs show empathy if their owner is in distress and will also try to help rescue them. 


Empathetic dogs lend a helping paw

The study

Researchers instructed the owners of 34 dogs to either give distressed cries or to hum while sitting behind a see-through closed door. Sixteen of these dogs were registered therapy dogs. The researchers watched what the dogs did, and also measured their heart rate variability to see how they physically reacted to the situation. In another part of the experiment, the researchers examined how these same dogs gazed at their owners to measure the strength of their relationship.


Dogs that heard distress calls were no more likely to open a door than dogs that heard someone humming. However, they opened the door much faster if their owner was crying. Based on their physiological and behavioral responses, dogs who opened the door were, in fact, less stressed than they were during baseline measurements, indicating that those who could suppress their own distress were the ones who could jump into action.

How did the therapy dogs do?

Contrary to expectation, the sixteen therapy dogs in the study performed as well as the other dogs when tested on opening the door. According to researchers this may be because registered therapy dogs, despite what people may think, do not possess traits that make them more attentive or responsive to human emotional states. Rather, therapy dog certification tests involve skills based more on obedience rather than on human-animal bonding.


Researchers concluded that the study provides evidence that dogs not only feel empathy towards people, but in some cases also act on this empathy. This happens especially when they are able to suppress their own feelings of distress and can focus on those of the human involved. According to researchers, this is similar to what is seen when children need to help others. They are only able to do so when they can suppress their own feelings of personal distress.


Journal Reference: Emily M. Sanford, Emma R. Burt, Julia E. Meyers-Manor. Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs. Learning & Behavior, 2018; DOI: 10.3758/s13420-018-0332-3