A new study published in the journal Learning and Behavior suggests that dogs not only understand when you are upset, but also want to help when they see you are sad.
According to Live Science, the study reached this conclusion by conducting research with 34 dogs and their owners. During the study, owners sat behind a glass door with their dogs on the other side. The owners were told to say the word “Help!” every 15 seconds, either in an unaffected tone of voice or a distressed tone of voice.
During trials in which the owners were acting unaffected, they were told to hum “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” between each time they said “Help.” For the owners who were acting distressed, they were told to make crying sounds between their calls.
The dogs, who could see and hear the owners through the door, could also reach them by nudging open the door. Based on videos from the trials, researchers found that dogs, loyal to their owners, often went through the door to be with their humans, but when the canines were faced with a distressed-seeming owner, the pooches went through the door 40 seconds faster. Of course, there were those dogs in the study who did not go through the door, regardless of their owners’ states.
But even some of those who didn’t go through the door exhibited “stressful behaviors” when watching their owners act upset.
Senior study author Julia Meyers-Manor, an assistant professor of psychology at Ripon College, told Live Science these results may be something “reflective of empathy” in dogs, but that it is hard to say for certain.
The limitations to this study and its results include the variability of heart rate readings, the bond between dogs and their humans, the dogs’ reactions to the distressed sounds of strangers and the human subjects’ acting skills.
Overall, Meyers-Manor believes this study helps support the popular beliefs that dogs can tell when others are upset and want to make those around them feel better.