Dogs want to rescue owners in distress, study finds

New research has found that many dogs will try to rescue their owner if they think they are in distress. (Rawpixel pic)

ARIZONA: New US research has found that TV shows and films such as “Lassie” and “Bolt” might have a ring of truth to them, after finding that some dogs really will try to rescue their owners if they get into trouble.

Carried out by two researchers at the University of Arizona, the new study set out to investigate if, when given the chance, dogs really would attempt to rescue their owners.

“It’s a pervasive legend,” explained researcher Joshua Van Bourg. “Simply observing dogs rescuing someone doesn’t tell you much. The difficult challenge is figuring out why they do it.”

Van Bourg and his co-researcher Clive Wynne looked at how 60 pet dogs reacted when their own was in a “rescue” situation, which involved the owners being confined in a large box that had a lightweight door, which the dog could move to one side.

The owners pretended to be in distress by calling out “help,” and were coached beforehand on how to make their cries sound authentic.

They also were not allowed to call out their dog’s name, which may influence them to act of obedience and not out of concern.

In another test, the researchers dropped food into the box to see how many dogs would open it to retrieve it.

The findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, showed that around one-third of the dogs rescued their owner, the same amount as those who opened the box to retrieve food, which the researchers say suggests that rescuing an owner may be a highly rewarding action for dogs.

Van Bourg commented that the number “doesn’t sound too impressive on its own, but really is impressive when you take a closer look.”

He explains that it’s not just about the dogs’ desire to help their owners, but also about how well the dogs understood the kind of help that their owner needed.

“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 percent of them rescued their owners. So, most dogs want to rescue you, but they need to know how.”

In another test, the owners were asked to sit inside the box and calmly read aloud. This time, four fewer dogs, 16 out of 60 in total, opened the box than in the distress test.

The dogs also showed less signs of distress than in the situation when they thought their owner was distressed.

“What’s fascinating about this study,” Wynne said, “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.”