Study: Dogs show empathy, sensitivity to owner emotions

Anyone watching TV from the mid '50s to the mid '70s wanted a dog like Lassie. The collie was credited with compassion, companionship and saving the day. Dogs aren't called "man's best friend" for nothing.

We know that dogs have a knack for responding to their owner's distress, but to what extent? Could Lassie be not just a fictional character?

New research is showing us that dogs will go way out of their way to care for owners.

Here's the experiment. There were 34 dogs and their owners. The dogs were a variety of breeds and ages. The dogs and owners were split into two groups. One group of owners cried for help, while the other group hummed a tune.

Here's how it looked.

You can see in the video player above how one dog owner cries behind magnetic glass. You can see how fast the dog opens the glass door.

The average door opening time for the crying owner was 23 seconds, but for the owner who was simply humming? It was about 96 seconds. In both situations, the dogs pushed open the door but they acted much quicker with the owner in distress.

What does this small study show?

For one, we have a better understanding of dogs are sensitive to human emotional states.

The study has just been published in the journal Learning and Behavior. The study author says this is a good starting point to understanding how dogs can respond in an emergency, and of dogs' awareness of the human state.