Through a 2-part test, investigators attempted to analyze the true connection between dogs and their owners, particularly in times of distress.
Pet owners like to believe they share an emotional bond with their dogs and that “man’s best friend” understands when they’re feeling sad. In other words, dogs possess the ability to feel empathy. Is that true?
Investigators from Ripon College in Wisconsin set out to find the answer in a study recently published in the journal Learning & Behavior.
For the study, 34 adults dogs (21 male, 13 female; 29 spayed or neutered) of various breeds living in Minnesota were volunteered by their owners to participate. Nearly half of the dogs (n = 16) were nationally certified therapy dogs.
Phase 1: Prosocial Helping Task
The initial task mimicked a trapped-other paradigm (previously used only in rats). Owners were separated from their dogs and led into the testing area with 1 of the experimenters while a second experimenter held the dog’s leash.
The dog’s owner was seated in a chair in the testing room, and a small door was closed to separate dog and owner. Dogs were assigned to either the distress or control condition.
In the control condition, the owner said “help” in a controlled tone every 15 seconds, and hummed “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” between each vocalization. In the distress condition, the owner said “help” in a distressed tone at 15-second intervals and made crying sounds between each vocalization. In both conditions, the owners hid their hands from their dogs to prevent unintended communication.
The trial ended if the dog touched the door to open it. In trials where the dog did not open the door, the experiment ended after 5 minutes. Each trial was video recorded, and the videos were used to calculate opening rate and coded for behaviors of distress.
Phase 2: The Impossible Task
Phase 2 involved a test deemed the “impossible task,” in which the dog’s owner and a stranger stood on opposite sides behind the testing apparatus—a wood plank with the lid of a glass jar glued to it upside-down, so that the jar could be screwed upside-down into its lid and be rendered immovable.
The owner and stranger both stared diagonally across the room and remained still throughout the experiment. Once the room was set up, the dog was brought in so that it could see the apparatus and the 2 people standing behind it.
The dog was given a treat to show that there was an opportunity for food. Then, a second treat was placed on the lid at the center of the wood plank. After the dog had eaten the treat, it was retrieved and brought back to the starting position. For the next 3 rounds, the food was placed onto the lid of the jar, and the jar was placed gently on top of the lid in such a way that it could be easily tipped over. If the dog did not knock over the jar, it was encouraged to move the jar in order to retrieve the food. Most dogs required at least 1 trial of encouragement. No dog was allowed to progress to the final trial until it had moved the jar to get to the food 3 times.
In the final trial, the food was placed on the lid and the jar was screwed into place over it. The setup looked identical, but this time the jar could not be moved. Once the jar was put in place, the dog was released to be alone in the room with just their owner and the stranger. The trial lasted 60 seconds, during which videos were recorded to analyze the direction of the dog’s gaze when it could not move the jar to access the treat.
After analyzing the recordings for phase 1, the investigators discovered that a similar number of dogs in both groups opened the door—9 in the control group and 7 in the distress group. However, dogs in the distress condition opened the door significantly more quickly than dogs in the control condition (average 23.43 seconds vs. 95.89).
In the distress condition, the dogs that opened the door showed lower levels of stress. In the control condition, however, opening the door was not related to the dog’s stress level. The investigators believe the dogs may have instead been motivated by curiosity or a desire for social contact.
When it came to the impossible task, the dogs, on average, spent more time gazing at their owners than at the stranger. Considering all dogs, the amount of time that a dog spent gazing at its owner during the impossible task was not correlated with its latency to opening the door during phase 1. However, when only dogs that opened the door were studied, there was a negative correlation between latency to opening the door and gazing at the owner; dogs that opened more quickly gazed at their owner longer.
The authors concluded that dogs will provide prosocial help toward humans. More interestingly, the speed with which dogs opened the door suggests they were sensitive to their owners’ emotional state. These findings are consistent with previous research results with nonhuman primates, which have shown empathy toward humans in certain tasks.
“Interestingly, therapy dogs were not more likely to open the door for their owner in either condition nor were they faster at opening the door compared to non-therapy dogs,” the authors wrote. “It may be that registered therapy dogs do not, in fact, possess traits that make them more attentive or responsive to human emotional states given that the therapy dog certification tests involve skills based more on obedience than on human-animal bonding.”
The investigators suggested that future studies use prerecorded audio clips of human vocalizations to standardize the emotional experience to which each dog is exposed during the trial. They also recommended a test that would compare helping toward recordings of human voices and canine vocalizations that are standardized with respect to emotionality. If dogs respond empathetically to crying humans, it is likely that they would respond similarly to distressed dogs.