The bond between humans and dogs is a special one. For thousands of years, humans and dogs—or their wolfish ancestors—have enjoyed each other’s company in a symbiotic relationship benefiting both parties. Over time, selective breeding has created a species that is more in tune with human emotions than any other creature on the planet.
Any dog owner will tell you that their dog seems to have telepathic powers and can tell when they’re feeling down and need a wagging tail to pick them up, but is it true? In this article, we’re going to see what the science says about dogs’ ability to sense human emotion and whether or not your dog can tell when you’re sad. Grab a comfy seat and your fuzzy friend. Let’s get into it!
Designing the Experiment
The main focus of this article is a study published in Learning and Behavior playfully titled “Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs.” You can find the original article here.
In summary, researchers studied 34 subjects consisting of owner-dog pairs. Each pair was separated by a glass door which the dogs could see and hear through. A small dog door granted access between the owner and dog, allowing them to pass freely between the rooms.
The 34 subjects were split into a control group and a test group. Researchers instructed both groups to say “help” at 15-second intervals, but the control group was told to say it in a neutral tone while the test group said it in a distressed tone. In between, the control group hummed the nursery rhyme Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, while the test group made distressed crying sounds.
Researchers measured each dog’s heart rate, monitored their behavior, and recorded the amount of time it took dogs to enter the room with their owner. They found that dogs in the test group where their owners exhibited stressed behavior entered their owner’s rooms on average 40 seconds sooner than dogs in the control group.
Additionally, even dogs that did not enter their owner’s rooms displayed stressed behavior like pacing and had an elevated heart rate compared to dogs in the control group. The researchers claim that this is evidence for empathic reflection, a human behavior rarely seen in other species. While these results are certainly interesting, there are some problems with the study.
Possible Confounding Factors
Despite the interesting outcome, this study has some problems that could render the results less meaningful than they might seem at first.
One major drawback to the study is the small sample size. With only 34 participants, it is impossible to draw statistically robust conclusions. A follow-up study with more subjects would help make the results more easily interpretable.
There are also several variables in the study that are impossible to control for and difficult to quantify. For example, the strength of the bond between the dog and its owner is certainly not the same in every pair and is also impossible to quantify. Some owners are closer to their canine companions than others, and this variability introduces uncertainty.
A similar problem concerns the owner’s acting ability. People who can act sad or distressed more convincingly are more likely to trigger an empathetic response in their dogs than less convincing people. Acting ability is another attribute that is hard to quantify and therefore can’t be accounted for when reporting the results.
Ideas for Follow-Up Studies
We already mentioned that increasing the sample size would go a long way to bolstering the results. With twice as many or more subjects, any conclusions would be more reliable and less likely to result from random chance.
Another idea is to test dog’s responses to strangers in distress. Since the bond between a dog and its owner is unquantifiable, mixing dogs and owners could help shed light on whether dogs are more in tune with their owner’s emotions than a random stranger’s. Of course, even if dogs react to a stranger in distress, that is still evidence that dogs can sense human emotion and want to help somehow.
Anecdotal Evidence and Other Lines of Reasoning
This article is about the science of the dog-human bond, but we would be remiss not to mention that the nearly universal reports of dogs correctly interpreting their owner’s emotions lends credibility to the conclusion that dogs can sense our emotions. Of course, anecdotal evidence is just that, anecdotal, but it suggests that carefully designed experiments are warranted to understand our relationship with our best friends better.
It is also interesting that canine experts familiar with dogs and wolves suggest that the social nature of pack animals like dogs makes them well-suited for forming bonds. Cross-species bonds aren’t unheard of, even if they are much rarer than relationships between members of the same species. One way of thinking about it is that dogs have the neural circuitry in place to allow them to form complicated relationships with other animals. Thousands of years of breeding have possibly tuned those circuits to recognize human emotion, resulting in the close bonds we experience today.
The final answer from science is unclear, but some tantalizing evidence suggests that dogs indeed can sense sadness and take action to help their owners in distress. Studying animals—even humans—poses serious challenges to the scientific method. Animals are notoriously unpredictable, and it isn’t always possible to design experiments that control all the confounding variables that could be present.
Still, early scientific evidence, anecdotal evidence from millions of dog owners, and a sound theoretical argument based on evolutionary biology all combine to make a compelling case that dogs can tell when we’re sad and will try to help to the best of their ability. So next time Scruffy curls up next to you on the couch when you’re feeling down, take comfort in knowing that he probably understands to some extent that you’re sad and is there to help. If you weren’t already convinced that dogs are the greatest creatures on earth, this is one more piece of evidence to put in the file.
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