London: Dogs will make a speedy effort to comfort their owners if they think they are upset, a study has shown.
Anecdotally, dog owners often say their pets are in tune with their emotions and will offer support in times of crisis, but it has never been scientifically tested.
In a new study, scientists from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US, took 34 dogs and positioned them behind a door closed with magnets, with their owners on the other side. The owners were asked to either hum Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star or pretend to cry.
They found that many of the dogs nosed their way through the door, but they did it three times more quickly when they thought their owners were upset and needed comforting.
"We found dogs not only sense what their owners are feeling, if a dog knows a way to help them, they'll go through barriers to provide it," said lead author Emily Sanford, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences.
"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.
"Dogs have been by the side of humans for tens of thousands of years and they've learnt to read our social cues.
"Dog owners can tell that their dogs sense their feelings. Our findings reinforce that idea."
During the task, the researchers also measured the dogs' stress levels and found those who were able to push through the door to "rescue" their owners showed less stress, meaning they were upset by the crying, but not too upset to take action.
As for the dogs who didn't push open the door, it wasn't because they didn't care – it seemed they cared too much.
Those dogs showed the most stress and were too troubled by the crying to do anything, the researchers believe.
The idea for the experiment came when co-author Julia Meyers-Manor was playing with her children and was rescued by the family collie when she began calling for help during play.
The research was published in the journal Learning & Behaviour.
The Telegraph, London