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Dogs Answer Owners Crying for Help

Results from a new study in the journal Learning & Behavior supports previous research from England that while dogs may not be able to actually rescue a person trapped in a well, they do understand the difference between crying for help and humming, and some dogs will push open a door to get to their owner in a time of perceived need.

Julia Manor of Ripon College in Wisconsin came up with the idea for the most recent trial when she was buried in a pile of pillows while playing with her kids. She jokingly called for help and “My husband didn’t come, but my collie came running down the stairs and dug me out,” Manor told NBC News.

Researchers were trying to figure out how much a dog will do to help its owner. They found that dogs will push open a door to get to their owners — but only if the dog is not too stressed out by the sight and sound of its owner seemingly in distress. And the dogs seemed to be able to tell the difference between crying and humming. The researchers report that the dogs pushed open a closed door much more quickly if their owners appeared to be crying. This corroborates a British study published online in 2012 in the journal Animal Cognition, where University of London researchers found that dogs were more likely to approach a crying person than one who was humming or talking.

"The humming was designed to be a relatively novel behavior, which might be likely to pique the dogs' curiosity," study researcher and psychologist Deborah Custance said of the earlier study. "The fact that the dogs differentiated between crying and humming indicates that their response to crying was not purely driven by curiosity. Rather, the crying carried greater emotional meaning for the dogs and provoked a stronger overall response than either humming or talking."

Manor plans to continue the experiments, testing dogs to see if they also show empathy for dogs in distress.

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