True Best Friend: Dogs Really Will Rescue Their Owners — Or, At Least They’ll Try

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TEMPE, Ariz. — Just like Lassie running off to tell everyone that Timmy just fell in the well, we all like to think that our faithful canine companions would save us if the situation ever called for rescue. But, real life is rarely ever like old TV shows. Would your dog really save you if you were stuck in a well or trapped somewhere?

Researchers from Arizona State University set out to answer that question and came to a heartwarming conclusion. Yes, your dog will save you, that is, as long as he or she knows how to accomplish such a task.

The study’s authors gathered 60 pet dogs together and observed what happened when each dog’s owners was seemingly placed in a tough spot. None of the studied dogs had any prior experience or training saving people.

During the main phase of the experiment each dog’s owner was “locked” in a big box with a light-weight door that the dogs could move fairly easily. While they were inside, participanting owners called out to their dogs for help (“help!” help me!”). All the owners were coached a bit beforehand to ensure their cries for help would sound authentic, and were told not to call out their dog’s name, as that may incite the dog to take action out of obedience, not actual concern for their owner’s wellbeing.

“About one-third of the dogs rescued their distressed owner, which doesn’t sound too impressive on its own, but really is impressive when you take a closer look,” comments study co-author Joshua Van Bourg in a release.

According to Van Bourg, the dog’s heroic actions were striking for two main reasons. First, the dogs clearly showed a desire to help their owners, and second, the dogs were also intelligent enough to figure out what actions had to be taken (opening the box’s door).

In addition to that experiment, two control tests were also held. In one of those, dogs watched as a researcher dropped a box of food on the floor. Interestingly, only 19 out of 60 dogs actually went over to the food and opened the box (far less than had rescued their owners). “The key here is that without controlling for each dog’s understanding of how to open the box, the proportion of dogs who rescued their owners greatly underestimates the proportion of dogs who wanted to rescue their owners,” Van Bourg says.

“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,” he explains. “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.”

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The second control experiment asked owners to calmly sit in the box and read aloud from a magazine. That time, only 16 out of the 60 dogs tried to open the box.

“A lot of the time it isn’t necessarily about rescuing,” Van Bourg notes. “But that doesn’t take anything away from how special dogs really are. Most dogs would run into a burning building just because they can’t stand to be apart from their owners. How sweet is that? And if they know you’re in distress, well, that just ups the ante.”

Moreover, the dogs showed clear signs of distress themselves when they thought their owner was in trouble.

“During the distress test, the dogs were much more stressed,” Van Bourg explains. “When their owner was distressed, they barked more, and they whined more. In fact, there were eight dogs who whined, and they did so during the distress test. Only one other dog whined, and that was for food.”

All in all, this study makes a strong case that dogs really do feel empathy and compassion for their owners.

“What’s fascinating about this study,” co-author Clive Wynne concludes, “is that it shows that dogs really care about their people. Even without training, many dogs will try and rescue people who appear to be in distress — and when they fail, we can still see how upset they are. The results from the control tests indicate that dogs who fail to rescue their people are unable to understand what to do — it’s not that they don’t care about their people.

The study is published in PLOS ONE.

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