For generations, the “Lassie” effect has helped support the belief that dogs really are man’s best friend. Researchers from Arizona State have confirmed that it’s because your dog really does want to rescue you if you need help, and that’s an intrinsic trait they just have.
We hear about it and read about it (and write about it) all the time. A beloved dog heroically steps in and saves the day of the distressed humans in its sights.
Why is this? Is it just the nature of a dog to want to help its owner (or humankind) when they need help? Researchers from Arizona State University’s Department of Psychology wanted to find out and discovered that dogs generally do want to help their owners, and will additionally and ingeniously find ways to do so.
Clive Winn is an ASU professor of psychology and the director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at ASU. Together with graduate student Joshua Van Bourg, they observed the behaviors of 60 dogs, and specifically at the dogs’ propensity to rescue their owners. Van Bourg said it’s also not just enough to see that dogs want to rescue us, but to try to figure out why it is that they do so.
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None of the 60 dogs had been trained in any way to ‘rescue’ or ‘help’ their humans. In the main test, the owners were each put in large boxes that had a light-weight door their dog could easily move aside if it chose. The owners pretended to be in distress, calling out, “Help,” or, “Help me.” These cries had been coached before the experiment so they sounded authentic, and the owners only used those terms, not their dog’s name. They didn’t want the dogs to simply act out of obedience and wanted to see what they did when they believed their owner was truly distressed.
About a third of the dogs rescued their owner. Despite not being a majority behavior, it’s important to note that the dogs who did help not only wanted to help for no other reason but to help, and that they understood that help was even needed. This was tested with other control tests that other studies about dogs helping didn’t have.
For instance, in one control test, the 60 dogs watched a researcher put food into the box. Only 19 of the dogs went to get the food. This meant more dogs chose to rescue their owners than to get food they knew was available. Because they had no way of knowing if each dog even knew how to open the box, the proportion of dogs who may have wanted to open the box for their owners is likely bigger, they just simply may not have known how. They base that on the fact that two-thirds of the dogs didn’t open the box for food, meaning that opening the box required more than just the desire to do so–it also required the knowledge of how to do so. Van Bourg said that looking at the 19 dogs who showed them they knew how to open the door to get food, 84% of them rescued their owners. That overwhelming majority leads them to believe that most dogs do indeed want to rescue you, they simply may not know how.
Another control test that helped confirm this was observing owners who sat inside of the box but were calmly reading out loud from a magazine. Only 16 of the 60 dogs opened the boxes for their owners as compared to the 20 who opened the door when they felt they needed help. Van Boug says that doesn’t mean they’re not necessarily simply about rescuing their owners, but being with them, and he believes most would run into burning buildings just to be with their owners. Still, during the distress situations, they noted the dogs were stressed–whining, walking, barking and yawning. When their owners were distressed, they barked and whined more and that leads them to believe the understood the gravity of their owners’ distress.
And, in repeated attempts of distressed owners needing ‘help,’ though the dogs were already exposed to the situation and knew the outcome, they remained stressed with whining and barking as they heard their owners. This is in comparison to when their owners were reading calmly the second and third times in the boxes–and in those situations, the dogs were consistently less stressed. They were acclimated to what was going on, but when their owner was calling for help, despite repeated exposure, the dogs did not get calmer. They felt urgency every time they heard their owner’s distress.
Van Bourg says that in humans, we might call this empathy, and these behaviors are evidence of ’emotional contagion,’ where the stress from the owner was transferred to the dog as well. Wynne said that this showed dogs really care about their people–despite training to do so–and that many dogs will be upset when they try to rescue their humans and fail. It’s not that they don’t want to; they simply don’t know how yet.
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Wynne said the next research will look at whether dogs that rescue do so to be close to their people or whether they’d still try to open the box and rescue them even if they didn’t get the payoff of being with their people. They want to continue to look at motivation behind a dog’s desire to help.
We already know, of course–it’s because they’re the best boys and girls ever and they just love their hoomans!