Your Dog Really Wants to Help When You're Upset

Dog, empathy
Dogs not only sense what their owners are feeling, but will go through barriers to provide help to them. photovideostock/Getty Images

McBeal was the alpha dog. She ruled the roost. She knew it, as did everyone else, including my ex-wife. Although she was top dog, I have to say, McBeal loved me more than anyone, although her sister, Sophie, was a very close second.

One day months before our divorce, my wife and I got into a shouting match. I never saw McBeal so upset. As my wife and I argued by the front door, McBeal bounded off the couch and came running towards me. McBeal sat between my legs and kept nudging my thigh with her nose and pawing at my leg, her mouth agape, her eyes wide with concern as if to say "Daddy, are you okay? Should I call your lawyer?" McBeal did this several times during those agonizing months.


Was McBeal reacting to our loud voices, or was she truly concerned about me (note the emphasis)? At the time, I knew the answer, and now the rest of the world does too. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University have confirmed what most dog owners already know — that dogs that have strong emotional bonds with their owners and want to help when we are upset.

In a paper titled "Timmy's in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs," (in homage to Lassie) published July 23, 2018 in Learning & Behavior, researchers described how dogs pushed through a door when they heard their owners crying.

"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," said lead author Emily Sanford, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences, in the paper.

Although earlier studies found dogs respond to human crying, Sanford's research is the first to show that our beloved four-legged friends are moved to action when they see their owners in emotional distress. The experiment involved 34 pet dogs of varying breeds. Some were big, some small.

Here's how it all played out: Researchers told the dogs' owners, one at a time, to stand behind a clear door held shut by magnets. The owners' dogs could see and hear what was going on. Researchers then had the humans hum "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," or pretend to cry. While not all the dogs opened the door, those that did opened it three times faster when they heard their owners crying instead of humming.

Researchers also measured the dogs' stress levels. Those that were able to bolt through the door to "rescue" their owners showed less stress even though they were upset by the crying. Even though they were upset, they weren't too frazzled to take action, the researchers concluded. The dogs that didn't push the door open were more stressed out. It seems, the researchers surmised, those dogs were so troubled by their owner's crying that they couldn't do anything to help.

"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."