Scott Hollifield: Science has gone to the dogs

A new study suggests dogs know when their people are having a rough time.

Dog owners around the world equate that sentence with “a new study suggests the sun often rises in the morning.”

In other words, that’s not really breaking news.

But there is a new study and that’s what it suggests. It appears in an online publication called Springer, described as “a leading global scientific, technical and medical portfolio, providing researchers in academia, scientific institutions and corporate R&D departments with quality content through innovative information, products and services” and not the TV show where obese cross-dressers punch each other in the face for the amusement of a particularly blood-thirsty studio audience. The study was conducted by Emily M. Sanford, formerly of Macalester College and now at Johns Hopkins University.

She is not related, as far as I have determined in my research, to Fred G. Sanford, cantankerous junk impresario of the 1970s.

“In one of their experiments, Sanford and her colleagues instructed the owners of 34 dogs to either give distressed cries or to hum while sitting behind a see-through closed door,” reads the Springer synopsis. “Sixteen of these dogs were registered therapy dogs. The researchers watched what the dogs did, and also measured their heart rate variability to see how they physically reacted to the situation.”

The conclusion?

“Dogs that heard distress calls were no more likely to open a door than dogs that heard someone humming. However, they opened the door much faster if their owner was crying,” according to the synopsis. “The study therefore provides evidence that dogs not only feel empathy towards people, but in some cases also act on this empathy.”

It doesn’t take an academic study to convince me that my dog, an elderly but spritely min pin named Pogue in honor of the Irish-British punk band, can tell when I have had a bad day. We talk it out. Yes, my dog talks. If yours doesn’t, you need a better imagination.

Here’s a typical conversation.

“Hello, Scott! Hello, Scott! How was your day? How was your day? Give a treat and tell me all about it.”

“I’ve had better days, Pogue.”

“Yeah, I guess it is tough being The Enemy of the People.”

‘Hey, are you watching Fox News again? I specifically left the TV on the Cartoon Network.”

“Hey, big guy, I’m just yanking your chain a little bit. Speaking of which, thanks for never putting a chain on me and yanking it. I appreciate that. But, back to your day. What happened?”

“Oh, well, a newspaper carrier’s car broke down and a route was late and I missed a typo in the church news and now everyone thinks the First Presbyterian church will have a special ‘sinning; instead of a special ‘singing’ on Sunday. A couple of disingenuous local politicians with poor reading comprehension are stirring up the Facebook rabble to burn down the liberal left-wing socialist newspaper building. And that’s not the half of it.”

“So pretty much a typical day, Scott?”

“Yep, pretty much a typical day, Pogue.

“Look, Scott, I’m just a dog, but I know this. You and the small-town journalists you work with are doing the best you can under tough circumstances - declining ad revenue, stagnant salaries, cost-cutting management and gun-wielding idiots who threaten you online in poorly worded posts made when normal people are actually working for a living. But you continue to seek the truth, you care about your community and you show up every day to fight the good fight.”

“Thanks, Pogue. You haven’t been taking part in any scientific studies while I am at work, have you?”

“I love you, big guy, but you aren’t getting a cut of my Springer money.”

Scott Hollifield is editor/GM of The McDowell News in Marion, N.C. and a humor columnist. Contact him at

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