It may well be a holdover from our childhood fantasies, but in our intimate thoughts, there is one canine personality characteristic that virtually every dog owner believes in. At some basic emotional level, we all believe that the one special defining aspect of dogs is their desire to help and protect us. Embedded in our subconscious is a trust that our dogs will have the intelligence to recognize times when we need their help, and will have the courage to place their own lives at risk to protect their beloved human family from any harm.
Perhaps it harkens back to a primitive human huddled near a small fire, fearfully looking into the darkness yet somehow reassured because a dog is resting quietly nearby. That prehistoric version of ourselves was soothed because he knew that his dog would immediately become alert if danger was close at hand. For whatever reason, we all seem to draw comfort from that confidence that in a time of crisis our dogs will turn into heroes, saviors, rescuers, or faithful defenders, just like Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Benji, and every other canine movie star we have seen depicted in action films and on television. Unfortunately, this has always just been an article of faith since there was no scientific data to indicate that our conviction was based on any element of truth, until now.
A team of researchers headed by Fabricio Carballo of the Canine Behavior Research Group at the University of Buenos Aires Institute of Medical Research in Argentina decided to experimentally test whether dogs would recognize when their owners were in distress and if they would then make some attempt to rescue them.
The basic setup for this study involved an apparatus that looks like a wooden telephone booth with a door consisting of a clear Plexiglas panel that ran top to bottom and the width of the booth. The door could be closed and held in place by a round stone weighing about three pounds (1.5 kg). There was a small gap at the place where the door closed which would allow a dog to insert a paw or its muzzle in order to push the door open. The idea was that in one test condition the dog's owner would be placed in the booth and would act in a distressed manner (for example, screaming, pretending to cry, hitting the walls of the booth and so forth).
The second group of dogs was presented with their owner seated in the booth reading. In this calm condition, the owners were operating under instructions not to pay any attention to the dog, and they were forbidden to call the dog or interact in any way. The question: When dogs see their owner apparently suffering, will they attempt to free them from the booth by rolling the stone away or attempting to pry the door open in some manner to allow him or her to escape.
In the main part of the study, the dogs were simply pet dogs, who had lived with their owner for at least a year and had received no formal obedience schooling. In addition, to see if training made a difference an additional group of dogs that had been trained for search and rescue was also tested in the situation where their owner appeared to be in distress. Each dog was tested in only one condition (although this condition was repeated three times).
The main results showed that you have a fifty-fifty chance of having your dog rescue you if he sees that you are in distress since a median of 50% of the dogs on any given test trial actually opened the door and let their owner out. Compare that to only 12% of the dogs opening the door to free their owner when they were sitting calmly in the booth. Dogs who had been trained to do search and rescue work did somewhat better, freeing their owner a median of 70% of the time.
If we look at the times that it took for the dog to open the door to their owner we find that when the owner was acting stressed it took the dogs around 75 seconds to free them, and for those few dogs who freed their owner when they were calm, they took a longer period of time to decide to do anything (averaging around 107 seconds). For the search and rescue trained dogs, when they responded they were very fast, taking only 45 seconds to release their owner.
The investigators were somewhat concerned that their results might be contaminated because during the stressed trials the dog owner sometimes used the dog's name, which could attract its attention, while during the calm trials this was not allowed. Maybe it wasn't so much an actual rescue based upon seeing their owner's distress, but rather the dog's response to hearing its name. Because of this, they repeated the basic study with a new group of dogs and two procedural changes. One was that in the condition where the owner was calmly sitting in the booth, he or she could talk to the dog and use its name. The second difference was that the dogs' stress levels were monitored by measuring their heart rate and checking if there was an increase in the dogs' stress hormone levels (cortisol).
The results of the second experiment were very similar to the first. A median of 65% of the dogs observing their owner acting in a distressed manner pried open the door to rescue them. However, in the trials where the owner was calm, there were still very few attempts (18%) to free their owner from the booth.
One thing that became clear from the added physiological measures was that the dogs were, in fact, responding to their owners' emotional distress in the condition where they acted as if they were suffering since they showed a marked increase in their heart rate. This increase in the dog's emotional arousal level could be part of what drives the dog to attempt to rescue their owner when they see that their owner is apparently in trouble.
What does this data say about whether your dog will turn into Lassie and save you from a situation where you are in jeopardy? Apparently it provides evidence that around half, or a little bit more, of all dogs will act in a heroic manner and try to free you from a stressful situation. It is interesting to note that according to social psychologists, averaging across many different testing conditions, the likelihood that another human being will try to rescue you if they notice that you are in trouble and distress is not much better than that.
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Carballo, F., Dzik, V., Freidin, E., Damián, J. P., Casanave, E. B. & Bentosela, M. (2020). Do dogs rescue their owners from a stressful situation? A behavioral and physiological assessment. Animal Cognition, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-019-01343-5