Just as the act of petting a dog lowers heart rate and blood pressure, a recent study has unveiled an added benefit of having a furry friend next to you. A recent study discovered that your pet dogs will try to save you anyway, when the situation demands, even if you don’t train them.
ASU Canine Science Collaboratory study shows that pet dogs will try to save their distressed human, as long as they know how. “It’s a pervasive legend. Simply observing dogs rescuing someone doesn’t tell you much. The difficult challenge is figuring out why they do it,” said Joshua Van Bourg, a graduate student at Arizona State University’s Department of Psychology.
So, Van Bourg and Clive Wynne, an ASU professor of psychology and director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at ASU, set up an experiment assessing 60 pet dogs’ propensity 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”. Beforehand, the researchers coached the owners so their cries for help sounded authentic. In addition, owners weren’t allowed to call their dog’s name, which would encourage the dog to act out of obedience, and not out of concern for her owner’s welfare.
“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,” Van Bourg said. 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. 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.
“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,” Van Bourg said. “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,” Van Bourg said.
“If you look at only those 19 dogs that showed us they were able to open the door in the food test, 84 per cent of them rescued their owners. So, most dogs want to rescue you, but they need to know how,” Bourg added. In another control test, Van Bourg and Wynne looked at what happened when the owner sat inside the box and calmly read aloud from a magazine. What they found was 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.
The researchers also observed each dog’s behaviour during the three scenarios. They noted behaviours that can indicate stress, such as whining, walking, barking, and yawning.
“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,” Van Bourg said.
What’s more, 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.Van Bourg said: “They became acclimated. Something about the owner’s distress counteracts this acclimation. There’s something about the owner calling for help that makes the dogs not get calmer with repeated exposure.”
In essence, these individual behaviors are more evidence of “emotional contagion,” the transmission of stress from the owner to the dog, explained Van Bourg, or what humans would call empathy.Wynne said: “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,” Wynne added.”Next, we want to explore whether the dogs that rescue do so to get close to their people, or whether they would still open the box even if that did not give them the opportunity to come together with their humans,” Wynne noted.
(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed. )