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Anyone who has ever owned a pet or been friends with a pet owner is aware that people tend to go a little crazy over their pets. Cat owners will cheerfully spend hundreds of dollars on climbing trees and cat houses despite knowing that the cat will be more interested in the cardboard box that served as the gift’s packaging. People talk to their rabbits and coo at their lizards. Dog owners are no exception. In fact, dog owners are often the ones who are most likely to spoil their pets. Dog owners will sneak their beloved pooch human food if not openly feed their four legged friend table scraps.

Dogs are treated basically like another member of the family and enjoy all the benefits of it. Truthfully, dogs are often one of the favorite members of the family. After all, a dog does not nag their human about doing the dishes, complain about missed dates or argue with their human over what channel should be playing on TV. Dogs simply offer love and affection unconditionally. All they need to be content are food, water and a happy human. 

Dogs are known for being committed to their human families. It is this commitment that gives them their reputation for loyalty. Dogs will defend their humans from attacks, warn of danger and offer comfort when their human is upset. Dogs’ defense of human family members from threats that vary from other humans to startled snakes and dogs’ abilities to act as an early warning of dangers such as fire or intruders are well documented. Dogs’ ability to sense that their human is upset, however, has always remained in the realm of anecdotes. Some people felt that such stories were being made up or exaggerated. A recent study, however, proved that the ability of a dog to sense a human’s need for comfort is not just an old wives’ tale. 

Scientists from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, took 34 dogs and their owners and positioned them on opposite sides of a door that was closed with magnets. The humans were then told by researchers either to cry or hum “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The dogs who thought their humans were in distress worked furiously to make their way through the door. Most of the canines eventually managed to nose the door open in order to see where their human went, but those who thought that their owner was upset managed to nose open the door three times more quickly than those who had no reason to be concerned about their humans.

Researchers also measured and recorded dogs’ stress levels during the experiment. These results showed something interesting. Not every dog nosed open the door even when their human was crying. The immediate reaction of most people would be to assume that this was because their dog did not care enough to work their way through the door. Scientists in the Johns Hopkins study, however, found that the reason the dogs were unable to reach their owners was the exact opposite. It was not that the dogs did not care enough. It was that they cared too much. The dogs that did not open the door showed the most stress of any of the canines in the experiment. They were so upset by their owner’s distress that they were, effectively, paralyzed, rather like a parent who freezes at the sight of their injured or crying child. They are not indifferent. They are simply too upset to move. The dogs in the experiment were the same. They were too troubled by the sound of their owner crying to nose open the door. The dogs that managed to reach their distressed owners and offer comfort, on the other hand, had much lower stress levels. They were upset by their humans’ crying, but they were not so concerned that they froze.

The conclusions stated by lead author Emily Sanford, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University, confirmed centuries of anecdotes about the bonds between humans and dogs. “Dogs not only sense what their owner is feeling,” Sanford said, “[but] if a dog knows a way to help them, they’ll go through barriers to provide help to them. Every dog owner has a story about coming home from a long day, sitting down for a cry and the dog’s right there, licking their face. In a way, this is the science behind that.”

The uncanny ability of dogs to sense the feelings and emotions of humans is part of why dogs can act as service animals for people suffering from PTSD. Dogs simply know when their owner needs to be calmed, grounded and comforted. 

“Dogs have been by the side of humans for tens of thousands of years,” Sanford said. “They’ve learned to read our social cues…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.”

Some dog owners may feel vindicated by the knowledge that their belief that their four legged friend can, essentially, read their mind is correct, but most people who keep canine companions feel that the determination of dogs to comfort their humans was never in question. That sort of attention, compassion and unconditional love is simply all part of the package, same as the bright eyes, wagging tail and bottomless pit of a stomach.