Dogs are hardwired to help their human owners, new research claims.
In a new study, researchers found dogs will instinctively try to help people in distress, even without emergency training.
Until now, little research has been done on why dogs will rush to aid someone in trouble – in spite of many people expecting this behaviour from our canine companions.
Psychologists Joshua Van Bourg and Clive Wynne, of Arizona State University’s canine science laboratory assessed how likely 60 pet dogs were to rescue their owners. None of the dogs had training in such an endeavour.
In the main test, each owner was confined to a large box equipped with a light-weight door, which the dog could move aside. The owners feigned distress by calling out ‘help,’ or ‘help me.’
The owners were coached so their cries for help sounded authentic.
In addition, owners were not allowed to call their dog’s name, which would encourage the dog to act out of obedience, and not out of concern for their owner’s welfare.
Prof Van Bourg said: ‘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.
‘That’s because two things are at stake here. One is the dogs’ desire to help their owners, and the other is how well the dogs understood the nature of the help that was needed.
The scientists explored this factor in control tests, something which had not been done 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 their owners than retrieved food.
Prof Van Bourg said: ‘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.
‘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.
‘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.’
In another control test, the researchers looked at what happened when the owner sat inside the box and calmly read aloud from a magazine. They found that four fewer dogs, 16 out of 60, opened the box in the reading test than in the distress test.
The fact that dogs did open the box more often in the distress test than in the reading control test indicated that rescuing could not be explained solely by the dogs wanting to be near their owners.
During the three scenarios, the researchers spotted behaviour which indicated stress, such as whining, walking, barking and yawning.
Prof Van Bourg said: ‘During the distress test, the dogs were much more stressed. 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.’
In the second and third attempts to open the box during the distress test didn’t make the dogs less stressed than they were during the first attempt. That was in contrast to the reading test, where dogs that have already been exposed to the scenario, were less stressed across repeated tests.
Prof Wynne added: ‘What’s fascinating about this study 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 was published in the journal PLOS.
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