Learning & Behavior

, Volume 46, Issue 4, pp 374–386 | Cite as

Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs

  • Emily M. Sanford
  • Emma R. Burt
  • Julia E. Meyers-ManorEmail author


Dogs are thought to evaluate humans’ emotional states, and attend more to crying people than to humming people. However, it is unclear whether dogs would go beyond focusing attention on humans in need by providing more substantive help to them. This study used a trapped-other paradigm, modified from use in research on rats, to study prosocial helping in dogs. A human trapped behind a door either cried or hummed, and the dog’s behavioral and physiological responses (i.e., door opening and heart rate variability) were recorded. Then, dogs participated in an impossible task to evaluate gaze at the owner as a measure of the strength of their relationship with their owner. Dogs in the distress condition opened at the same frequency, but significantly more quickly, than dogs in the control condition. In the distress condition, the dogs that opened showed lower levels of stress and were able to suppress their own distress response, thus enabling them to open the door more quickly. In the control condition, opening was not related to the dog’s stress level and may have instead been motivated by curiosity or a desire for social contact. Results from the impossible task suggest that openers in the distress condition may have a stronger bond with their owner than non-openers, while non-openers in the control condition showed a stronger bond than openers, which may further suggest that the trapped-other paradigm is reflective of empathy.


Empathy Prosocial Heart rate variability 


Author’s Note

This research did not receive specific grant funding to support its completion.


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Macalester CollegeSt PaulUSA
  2. 2.Johns Hopkins UniversityBaltimoreUSA
  3. 3.Cleveland ClinicClevelandUSA
  4. 4.Ripon CollegeRiponUSA

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