Science Says That Dogs Want to Help You When You're Sad

Man's best friend is exceptionally attuned to your feelings.

If you've got a dog, you know that these magical creatures are far more emotionally intelligent than they get credit for. You also know that when you're feeling blue they magically appear, as if they sensed the exact moment when you started feeling sad and needed a cuddle. Well, if you believe the latest research on the subject, it turns out that they really do possess such powers.

A small study published in Learning & Behavior shows that not only do dogs notice when a person needs help, they are quick to rush to the human's assistance. The researchers placed people into a small room and made it seem that they were trapped, and asked some of them to say "help" in a distressed tone while imitating crying noises at 15-second intervals, while others were asked to say "help" in a normal tone while humming "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

The dogs could hear their owners through clear Plexiglass, and while there was very little difference in the amount of dogs that came to the aid of their owners, there was a big difference in the speed at which they did so. Those whose owners sounded distressed opened the door within 23.43 seconds, whereas those whose owners seemed calm took 95.89 seconds on average. These results indicate that man's best friend is exceptionally attuned to our feelings, and that the desire to help us is firmly ingrained in their very being.

Of course, the study had its limitations, most notably in that it was only comprised of 34 dogs. It's also difficult to do a true study of emotional intelligence in such controlled conditions, because if dogs are as emotionally intelligent as we think they are, they'd likely be able to differentiate between a fake sob and a real one.

"The other limitation is that half the dogs in the humming condition opened [the door], as well. It is likely that some of the opening is just from dogs wanting to be with their owners," Emily Sanford, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of the study, told CNN.

Still, the study indicates that, when there's any indication that we need their help, dogs selflessly rush to our aid.

"I think this study is important because it helps to show us how dogs might respond in an emergency situation," said Julia E. Meyers-Mano, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Ripon College and co-author of the study. "It also continues to build support for the attentiveness and concern that dogs show for human emotional states. That gives us a better understanding of both dogs and empathy."

Other recent studies have indicated that dogs possess the same social intelligence as toddlers, which is proven by their ability to engage in "cooperative communication," which is the technical term for communicating using physical gestures in the absence of verbal ones. But this study shows that dogs are unique from toddlers because they don't just recognize your emotional state, they also respond accordingly.

The proof is in the pudding. Earlier this month, a six-month-old golden retriever named Todd received a hero's welcome at a baseball game after valiantly defending his owner from a rattlesnake. And other studies have shown that the reason that dogs are so loyal derives from an evolutionary instinct that was cultivated centuries ago. In a compelling thread on Reddit, the overwhelming reason that people gave for deciding against suicide was that they knew it would destroy their pups.

So when you have a dog, you know you are truly in the presence of man's best friend.

And for more feel-good stories of very good doggos, Meet the Adorable Dog That Waits for His Owner's Train All Day Long.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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