Pet dogs will try to save their distressed human, as long as they know
What to do. You’re a dog. Your owner is trapped in a box and is crying out forhelp. Are you aware of his despair? If so, can you set him free? And what’smore, do you really want to?
That’s what Joshua Van Bourg and Clive Wynne wanted to know when they gavedogs the chance to rescue their owners.
Until recently, little research has been done on dogs’ interest in rescuinghumans, but that’s what humans have come to expect from their caninecompanions — a legend dating back to Lassie and updated by the popular Bolt.
“It’s a pervasive legend,” said Van Bourg, a graduate student in Arizona StateUniversity’s Department of Psychology.
Simply observing dogs rescuing someone doesn’t tell you much, Van Bourg said.“The difficult challenge is figuring out why they do it.”
So, Van Bourg and Wynne, an ASU professor of psychology and director of theCanine Science Collaboratory at ASU, set up an experiment assessing 60 petdogs’ propensity to rescue their owners. None of the dogs had training in suchan endeavor.
In the main test, each owner was confined to a large box equipped with alight-weight door, which the dog could move aside. The owners feigned distressby calling out “help,” or “help me.”
Beforehand, the researchers coached the owners so their cries for help soundedauthentic. In addition, owners weren’t allowed to call their dog’s name, whichwould encourage the dog to act out of obedience, and not out of concern forher owner’s welfare.
“About one-third of the dogs rescued their distressed owner, which doesn’tsound too impressive on its own, but really is impressive when you take acloser look,” Van Bourg said.
That’s because two things are at stake here. One is the dogs’ desire to helptheir owners, and the other is how well the dogs understood the nature of thehelp that was needed. Van Bourg and Wynne explored this factor in controltests — tests that were lacking in previous studies.
In one control test, when the dog watched a researcher drop food into the box,only 19 of the 60 dogs opened the box to get the food. More dogs rescued theirowners than retrieved food.
“The key here is that without controlling for each dog’s understanding of howto open the box, the proportion of dogs who rescued their owners greatlyunderestimates the proportion of dogs who wanted to rescue their owners,” VanBourg said.
“The fact that two-thirds of the dogs didn’t even open the box for food is apretty strong indication that rescuing requires more than just motivation,there’s something else involved, and that’s the ability component,” Van Bourgsaid. “If you look at only those 19 dogs that showed us they were able to openthe door in the food test, 84% of them rescued their owners. So, most dogswant to rescue you, but they need to know how.”
In another control test, Van Bourg and Wynne looked at what happened when theowner sat inside the box and calmly read aloud from a magazine. What theyfound was that four fewer dogs, 16 out of 60, opened the box in the readingtest than in the distress test.
“A lot of the time it isn’t necessarily about rescuing,” Van Bourg said. “Butthat doesn’t take anything away from how special dogs really are. Most dogswould run into a burning building just because they can’t stand to be apartfrom their owners. How sweet is that? And if they know you’re in distress,well, that just ups the ante.”
The fact that dogs did open the box more often in the distress test than inthe reading control test indicated that rescuing could not be explained solelyby the dogs wanting to be near their owners.
The researchers also observed each dog’s behavior during the three scenarios.They noted behaviors that can indicate stress, such as whining, walking,barking and yawning.
“During the distress test, the dogs were much more stressed,” Van Bourg said.“When their owner was distressed, they barked more, and they whined more. Infact, there were eight dogs who whined, and they did so during the distresstest. Only one other dog whined, and that was for food.”
What’s more, the second and third attempts to open the box during the distresstest didn’t make the dogs less stressed than they were during the firstattempt. That was in contrast to the reading test, where dogs that havealready been exposed to the scenario, were less stressed across repeatedtests.
“They became acclimated,” Van Bourg said. “Something about the owner’sdistress counteracts this acclimation. There’s something about the ownercalling for help that makes the dogs not get calmer with repeated exposure.”
In essence, these individual behaviors are more evidence of “emotionalcontagion,” the transmission of stress from the owner to the dog, explains VanBourg, or what humans would call empathy.
“What’s fascinating about this study,” Wynne said, “is that it shows that dogsreally care about their people. Even without training, many dogs will try andrescue people who appear to be in distress — and when they fail, we can stillsee how upset they are. The results from the control tests indicate that dogswho fail to rescue their people are unable to understand what to do — it’s notthat they don’t care about their people.
“Next, we want to explore whether the dogs that rescue do so to get close totheir people, or whether they would still open the box even if that did notgive them the opportunity to come together with their humans,” Wynne added.
Source: Original written by Robin Tricoles. published in Science Daily
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