If you’ve ever fallen into a YouTube hole of videos showing dogs attempting to save their owners from swimming pools, the findings of a recent study published in PLOS ONE probably won’t surprise you. The researchers decided to test if there was any truth to fabled helpful canines such as Lassie and found that actually, yes, dogs do want to save their owners. The only problem is they don’t always know how to.
The researchers put 60 caring canines to the test, all of whom participated in the study with their respective owners. They formulated a series of tests with the goal of assessing their desire to rescue their owner without confusing the motive with a desire for food or comfort. In order to clarify the dog’s motives, they tested their responses to three scenarios. In one, the owner was found stuck in a box crying for help, in another the dogs witnessed researchers dropping delicious snacks into the box and in the final condition, the owner was stuck in a box but relaxed and reading out loud. The same style of box was used in each scenario, which had a lightweight door that could be easily opened by the dogs, if they knew how to do it.
They found that the motivation to retrieve their distressed owner or their delicious snack was around the same with roughly one-third of the dogs having success in each scenario. To the uninitiated, it might sound callous that a dog is as motivated by a snack as it is by their owner, but I suspect most dog owners would consider this high praise.
They also observed that understanding the mechanism of the door might be a factor in retrieving their owners, and after accounting for opening ability it was found that the dogs freed their owners more often when the owner was in distress compared to when they were relaxed and reading. This means that, while seeking contact with their owner was a motivation for some dogs, the desire to reach the owners when they were in distress was great. Forget heckin’ good bois, these dogs are heckin’ heroes.
The dogs also showed visibly more distress when their owners were trapped and crying for help exhibiting stress behaviors such as barking and whining. The response was such that the researchers stated it constitutes an emotional contagion, demonstrating how our emotions can be passed to our pets. This indicates that the rescue behavior is empathetically motivated, built upon the dog’s emotional desire to rescue us rather than trying to glean some personal benefit. Though, heroically, there was one pooch that also whined for his captive snacks. We feel ya, buddy.
The findings also showed that experience was crucial as the dogs' success in the food-motivated task as well as previous experience opening doors at home strongly predicted if the dogs would have success in releasing their owners.
"What's fascinating about this study is that it shows that dogs really care about their people," said psychologist Clive Wynne, from Arizona State University in a statement. "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.”
Essentially, some dogs really did want to rescue their owners, but they didn’t know what they were doing, which raises the question: What did we do to deserve dogs?