Lassie Got Help, Would Your Dog?

“Usually the title of a scientific paper leaves anyone without the appropriate Ph.D. scratching their head in puzzlement.

“Timmy’s in the Well” is an exception. As you might imagine from the reference to a mythical episode of the “Lassie” TV show (Timmy never did fall down a well, although Lassie did), this is a report on whether dogs will help, or not help, their owners.

And the research was, of course, inspired by a collie.

Julia E. Meyers-Manor who studies animal behavior and cognition had some experiments going on investigating empathy in rats that were running into some difficulties. Then, she had a dog-inspired epiphany.

“My children had buried me in a pile of pillows and I started calling out for help to my husband, who did not come to my aid.”

Her collie, however, came at a run and started digging her out. Aha, she wondered, why not use dogs and people instead of rats? The people would cry for help and the dogs would, or would not, respond.

She discussed the idea with Emily M. Sanford, then an undergraduate at Macalester College where Dr. Meyers-Manor was then teaching and they designed an experiment.

No one really doubted that dogs show some kind of empathy. The question was whether they would act on the feeling, thus the science-sounding rest of the title of the article in Learning and Behavior: “Empathy and Prosocial Helping in Dogs.”

They tested 34 adult dogs, big and small, purebred and mutt. The owners were in a small room with a window and a door easily pushed open by even a small dog’s nose or paw. Some owners said, “Help” in a neutral tone of voice and hummed “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Others said “Help” in a distressed tone and cried.

The crying performance varied from owner to owner. Dr. Meyers-Manor said they produced “anything from real tears falling down their faces to things that sounded like laughter.”

The dogs did not exactly replicate Lassie’s television performance. About half of them opened the door for their owners, and the numbers were the same whether the owners were humming a happy tune or crying.

Also, Dr. Meyers-Manor and her colleagues recorded the dogs’ heart rates and their behavior and found something intriguing. The dogs that didn’t take any action when their owners were crying showed higher stress levels than the dogs who did act. Perhaps, she said, their high levels of anxiety inhibited them from taking action.

Of course some dogs were neither anxious nor helpful. They just relaxed or looked around. Dr. Meyers-Manor said she didn’t have enough information to offer prospective dog owners any tips on what breed or type of dog to get if you plan to fall down a well.

But if you are worried about being buried in pillows, a collie might be a good choice.

On the other hand, the dogs that did open the door did so much more quickly for crying owners than they did for humming owners. So maybe they really do care.”

James Gorman is a science writer at large and the host and writer of the video series “ScienceTake.” He joined The Times in 1993 and is the author of several books, including “How to Build a Dinosaur,” written with the paleontologist Jack Horner.

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