If You Are in Trouble, Will Your Dog Try to Rescue You?
New data measures the probability that your dog will free you if you're trapped.
Posted Apr 22, 2020
It is well recognized that we tend to have an emotional bond and empathic feelings connecting us to our dogs; however, these feelings go beyond simple bonds of companionship. Over the years, some surveys have shown that people tend to feel safer when their dogs are nearby. It seems as if we believe that in a time of crisis, our dogs will turn into heroes, like Lassie or Rin Tin Tin in the movies, and thus our dogs will save us from drowning, or being trapped, or warn us of impending danger. But is there any evidence that such attempts of rescue on the part of our pets are really very likely, or is the idea of our dogs metamorphosing from couch potatoes into heroes merely a comforting fantasy?
Simply considering the situation objectively, most small- to medium-size pet dogs might not have the capacity to rescue us when we've fallen through the ice, or are trapped in a collapsed building. The larger of my two dogs weighs 45 pounds (20 kg) and I am approximately five times heavier than that, making it unlikely that he could haul me to safety. However, in my heart, I still have some feeling that he would at least try to clear away debris or other things blocking my access to escape, or sound the alarm, or seek out help. Of course, science requires more than feelings, so recently some research has been attempted to see if dogs will really try to free their owners from a stressful situation. A new attempt to test this hypothesis comes from a team of researchers headed by Joshua Van Bourg of the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.
These investigators reasoned that there were three components that are important for dogs if we expect dogs to try to rescue their owners. The first is whether the dogs recognize that their owners are in distress and might benefit from their help. The second is whether the dogs can figure out some way of actually providing some assistance. The third is whether the dogs are actually motivated to then give the needed assistance.
Their experimental setup is rather straightforward. A test sample of 60 dogs was familiarized with a room which contained a box about the size of a large dog kennel. The box was made of pegboard, with slots cut in it so that the dog could look inside. It was closed with a very light piece of foam board which can be pushed away through the use of the dog's paw or muzzle, or moved by leaning against it. To test to see whether the dogs could actually perform this task food was put inside the box and the dogs were given the opportunity to remove the "door" to get the reward.
Next the dogs were exposed to a situation where their owner was actually hunkered down in the box with the door closed, and was acting as though he was in distress by calling out "Help!" or "Help me!" in a distressed voice. Alternatively, the owner sat in the box and simply read from a magazine aloud.
So how did the dogs react? The researchers monitored signs of stress in the dogs and in the case in which their owner was acting as though he was in trouble, the dogs were more active, barked and whined more, and showed other signs that they recognized that their owner was emotionally distressed. Their response indicated that they were much more disturbed when they were being asked for help than when their owner simply sat in the box and read to them.
It turns out that the likelihood that the dog will actually move away the barrier blocking the opening to the box does depend upon, at least in part, on the dog's previous experience. Dogs who have played hide and seek, or have a history of opening boxes, bins, doggie gates and other objects, are much more likely to successfully free their owner.
The probability that the dog will free its owner from the box is about one third. So you have about a 33% chance that your dog will rescue you in a situation such as this when you are trapped.
What is perhaps particularly interesting is what motivates your dog to rescue you. The data from this study shows that if you are showing distress, the dog will rescue you rather quickly. If you are trapped but not showing any distress, the dog is equally likely to try to free you, although not with as much excitement or speed. While this might appear to be puzzling, the investigators explain this result by pointing out that setting you free, whether you are in distress or not, appears to be rewarding to the dog. This is likely to be the case because dogs find that just being near you is in itself a reward, rather than any sense of heroic intentions.
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Van Bourg J, Patterson JE, Wynne CDL (2020) Pet dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) release their trapped and distressed owners: Individual variation and evidence of emotional contagion. PLoS ONE 15(4): e0231742. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0231742