Why the Most Helpful Dogs Keep Calm and Carry On

Dogs are willing to overcome obstacles to help people in distress—as long as they keep their cool

dog empathy.jpg
Would your pup come to your rescue? RooM the Agency/Alamy

As humans, our emotions can get the best of us. We clam up during job interviews, bungle stressful exams and babble incoherently on first dates. When we care too much, we tend to seize up.

The same seems to be true for dogs. At least, when it comes to rescuing their owners.

Today, in the journal Learning and Behavior, scientists report that the dogs most likely to come to the aid of their owners are those that feel empathy for humans—but not too much. Pooches that must push through doors to reach their distressed people need to both care enough to take action and keep the composure to do so. The work furthers our understanding of how dogs can be cued by human emotions and expands our knowledge of which dogs may be best equipped to lend a helping paw.

In the past half century, scientists’ understanding of empathy in non-human animals has vastly expanded—though not without controversy. While it’s been long accepted that other species express altruism—that is, sacrificing some of your own wellbeing for the sake of another’s—such behaviors are often motivated by relatedness. Evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane reportedly joked that he would gladly lay down his life—for two brothers or eight cousins. On the other hand, empathy, the sensitivity to the emotions of another individual, is a much murkier subject. It’s tough to get inside the head of a non-human animal—a prerequisite for determining if they are truly internalizing someone else’s feelings.

Several researchers stand firm—humans are not alone in their compassion. Rats rescue trapped brethren from plastic containers; chimps console victims of bullying; prairie voles soothe their partners when they’re feeling blue. Other scientists, however, are less convinced; maybe much of this behavior can simply be explained by a desire for social contact. To pinpoint empathy, researchers need to have a good grasp on the emotional state of both the animal in distress and the one standing by. Unfortunately, the setup of these experiments gets understandably hairy: the instructions to emote for the sake of science are often lost in translation.

Even less understood is how empathy can transcend the species divide—whether animals can feel for other creatures. “It’s not often that one species helps a member of another species,” says Angie Johnston, a psychologist who studies dog behavior at Yale University who was not affiliated with the study. “This is a very underrepresented topic for how important the topic is.”

Ask any dog owner, though, and they’ll swear by their pet’s intuition. Dogs are called man’s best friend for a reason (technically, we helped orchestrate their evolution to make it so). Previous studies on dog empathy have shown that dogs are prone to react to whining and crying in both other dogs and humans, but it remained ambiguous how likely dogs are to use this information as a call to action.

Senior author Julia Meyers-Manor first conceived of the experiment after her own dog, a collie named Athos, rushed to her side after hearing her muffled cries for help. The assailants? Meyers-Manor’s two children, and an armada of pillows. Meyers-Manor had been buried under a mountain of couch cushions and jokingly yelled out for assistance, inadvertently prompting Athos’ show of chivalry. There’d been no actual danger—but all the same, it made Meyers-Manor, a former faculty member at Macalester College and current assistant professor of psychology at Ripon College, wonder just how far a dog would go for a distressed human companion.

Together with lead author Emily Sanford, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University who was at the time an undergraduate at Macalester, and their colleague Emma R. Burt, Meyers-Manor designed a series of experiments to explore the extent of empathy in dogs.

In the first, 34 dogs were separated from their owners by a clear plastic door held shut with magnets. The owners were instructed to either make crying noises or hum “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” for up to five minutes. Every 15 seconds, they would say the word “help” in either an upset or casual tone to match their emotional state. As in other experiments, the dogs were expected to react to sounds of grief—but this time, there was an obstacle to overcome.

As soon as each trial began, each dog had the opportunity to go to its owner. To Sanford’s surprise, regardless of the anguish their owners conveyed, half the dogs pushed through the door to get to their humans’ side. “That was the basic effect we were expecting,” she explains. “But once we started looking at [how they were behaving], it became clear.”

Upon closer inspection of the dogs that entered their owners’ room, Sanford noticed that those who were hearing weeping barged in about four times faster than those hearing nonchalant humming. And when the team assessed the strength of each dog’s bond to its owner, they found that dogs who were more attached to their people were more likely to rush in to the sound of sobbing than those who stayed put.

“This validates what a lot of people already feel: The dogs do respond to the crying,” says Meyers-Manor. “It’s not just your imagination when your dog cuddles you when you’re crying in bed. They do seem to care about how we’re feeling.”

When the researchers turned their focus to the dogs’ anxiety levels, however, they found that the dogs most likely to exhibit heroics were actually less stressed than others. As the experiment began, the dogs who didn’t run to their owners instead spent their time barking, fidgeting and pacing the room, appearing to be overwhelmed by the pressure of the situation. The more unflappable dogs, on the other hand, kept their wits about them as they entered their owners’ room. Many of the dogs seemed to care that their people were in distress—but too much empathy was actually holding them back.

While this may seem counterintuitive at first glance, the idea of an “optimum” level of stress has been a point of discussion for over a century. Known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, the theory posits that a moderate amount of anxiety or pressure can actually boost productivity, providing the oomph needed to rev the human engine of ingenuity. Underdo it, and the motivation is lacking; overdo it, and you’ll kick the system into overdrive and likely balk under the pressure. It’s an imperfect law with many exceptions, but the general principle might apply to empathy. In fact, previous work in human children has shown that kids who are better at regulating their own strong emotions are more likely to respond to others with compassion. For anyone who’s ever erred after succumbing to an avalanche of emotion, this may resonate.

“We think the dogs who opened that door might have been at that sweet spot: they perceived stress, but weren’t so personally distressed that they couldn’t do anything,” Sanford says.

In evaluating the research, Johnston praises the study as “high quality,” calling it a strong first step towards understanding the traits that predict proactiveness in dogs. “Even if it’s in just some dogs, maybe their ability to understand and cooperate with us is even more impressive than we thought,” she adds. “This is just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s an important one.”

As for the dogs who didn’t swoop in to save the day, Sanford notes that a few of them may have needed a bit more convincing. “Some of the owners weren’t exactly actors,” she explains. In the future, Meyers-Manor may repeat the experiment with pre-recorded tapes of humans weeping. However, this would eliminate the dogs’ familiarity with the people in question, as well as any visual cues that might be tipping them off—both concerns for evoking empathy. In the meantime, Meyers-Manor is investigating if dogs have similar levels of compassion for other dogs.

Ultimately, these findings could have the potential to shift the landscape of canine employment. Dogs have proved themselves indispensable to the fields of conservation, forensics, therapy, mobility assistance and more. In these service contexts, canines are also often deeply attached to their human companions.

Many working dogs, such as therapy dogs, which provide psychological or physical therapy to humans, even have explicit roles in emotional management. However, although nearly half the 34 dogs in this experiment were certified therapy dogs, the researchers found no difference between the two sets of animals: both were equally likely to rush to the aid of an owner in need.

Sanford wasn’t shocked by this development. Therapy dogs aren’t necessarily trained on empathy; rather, they are instructed primarily in obedience, she says. Alternatively, according to Rebecca Frankel, author of War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love, working dogs may shift mentalities when they know they’re off the clock: An unfamiliar experimental setup may not have triggered a “working” mindset.

“Most military working and service dogs share a deep bond with their handlers,” Frankel adds. And even off-duty dogs have provided invaluable solace to their human companions. Frankel has spent years working with military service dogs and their trainers, adding that “outside of work, handlers [feel] they came through their service more intact because they [have] an emotional relationship with their dog. That’s connected to dogs’ ability to show love to their humans.”

But even without schooling, many dogs already have the instinct to care. “The average dog is already an empathetic dog,” says Sanford.

Dog owners would probably agree. According to Sanford, regardless of their dogs’ reactions in the moment, most of the study’s human participants affirmed the same sentiment on the way out: “If I were really in trouble, my dog would do something about it.” If anything, the experiment reinforced the study subjects’ hopes that their dogs would rise to the occasion.

For Sanford, this collective ego boost is a perk. “People bring their dogs in and we get to play with their dogs and no one is harmed,” she reflects with a laugh. “It’s a very heartwarming way to do science.”