Inside every dog there’s a hero waiting to be unleashed, or at least, that’s what we’d like to believe about our canine companions. New research suggests dogs truly want to rescue us when we’re in a bad situation, but they have to know how to help.
From Lassie and The Littlest Hobo to Bolt and Paw Patrol, we have this idea in our heads that dogs want to rescue owners in distress, and that they have a natural predisposition to be altruistic.
“It’s a pervasive legend,” Joshua Van Bourg, a grad student at Arizona State University and a co-author of the new study, said in a press release. “Simply observing dogs rescuing someone doesn’t tell you much. The difficult challenge is figuring out why they do it.”
Indeed, domesticated dogs are immensely helpful, but their motivations are still poorly understood, including the degree to which we can say they’re acting with prosocial or empathetic intent. Van Bourg’s new paper, published in PLOS One, suggests dogs are sufficiently motivated to rescue owners in distress, especially when they know how to do it. At the same time, however, the new study still leaves us wondering if their heroic actions are prosocially motivated or if their behaviors are driven by other factors.
To determine the degree to which dogs are predisposed to rescue their owners, Van Bourg and his colleagues set up a series of experiments.
For the main challenge, called the “distress test,” dog owners were placed inside a large box, where they pretended to be trapped and in distress. The owners, who were trained beforehand to sound realistic, cried out to their pets, shouting “help!” or “help me!” Dogs were able to rescue their owners by opening a light-weight door on the box, but they had to figure that out for themselves.
A total of 60 dogs participated in the experiment, none of whom received any kind of special rescue training prior to the experiment. Of these, 20, or one-third, rescued their owners, “which doesn’t sound too impressive on its own, but really is impressive when you take a closer look,” said Van Bourg, in reference to the two control tests used for the experiment. The dogs participated in the two control tests and one rescue test in random order.
For the first control test, called the “reading test,” owners sat inside the box while calmly reading aloud from a magazine. In this scenario, 16 of the 60 dogs tried to get to their owner inside the box. This was taken as evidence that the dogs were unhappy about being separated from their owners.
For the second control, called the “food test,” the dogs watched as a researcher placed food inside the box, with no one inside. Surprisingly, just 19 of 60 dogs opened the box. As the authors wrote in the study, dogs “were as likely to release their distressed owner as to retrieve treats from inside the box, indicating that rescuing an owner may be a highly rewarding action for dogs.”
The food test also showed that knowledge of how to open the box was a critical factor. Dogs who learned how to open the box during the food test were eight times more likely to rescue their owners in either the distress or reading tests.
“The fact that two-thirds of the dogs didn’t even open the box for food is a pretty strong indication that rescuing requires more than just motivation, there’s something else involved, and that’s the ability component,” explained Van Bourg. “If you look at only those 19 dogs that showed us they were able to open the door in the food test, 84% of them rescued their owners. So, most dogs want to rescue you, but they need to know how.”
During these tests, the researchers monitored the dogs for stress, such as sniffing at the box, whining, pacing, barking, and yawning. These behaviors were most often observed during the distress test, even during repetitions of the test, in contrast to the reading test.
“They became acclimated [to the reading test],” Van Bourg said. “Something about the owner’s distress counteracts this acclimation. There’s something about the owner calling for help that makes the dogs not get calmer with repeated exposure.”
That “something” is what the researchers refer to as emotional contagion, in which owners transmit their stress to their pets. This evidence “supports the hypothesis that prosocial motivations contribute to rescue behavior in pet dogs,” wrote the authors.
Now, it’s possible these dogs were acting empathetically to rescue their owners, but this study doesn’t go quite that far in terms of the evidence. It’s conceivable, for example, that the dogs were trying to reduce their own stress, instead of trying to reduce the stress of their owners, among other potential motivations. More work will be required to fully understand these apparent prosocial behaviors in canines.
Looking ahead, the researchers would like to set up an experiment to see if dogs will still try to rescue their owners, even if it means they won’t be rewarded by getting physically close to them. Sounds like a challenging experiment to design and conduct, but the outcome could be quite revealing, if not a bit disappointing, should dogs lose their heroic status.