Quirks & Quarks

Experiment shows dogs might be willing to help you in a crisis, but they probably aren't able

Dogs showed anxiety in a situation where their owners were trapped, but most couldn't free them.

Dogs showed anxiety in a situation where their owners were trapped, but most couldn't free them

Psychologist Clive Wynne led a study to test ordinary pet dogs' ability to solve a simple problem that would "rescue" their owners who were feigning distress. Most dogs failed in the task. Nevertheless it's important to acknowledge that puppies are cute. (Clive Wynne, ASU)
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In fiction, dogs like Lassie could accomplish amazing feats, and trained dogs can do a great deal. But how many ordinary pets would be able to step up in a crisis? Our pets have the capacity to form great bonds with us, but would they, for example, come to our rescue if need be?

These are the types of questions Clive Wynne, a professor of psychology and director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, and his students tried to answer in a recent study.

Fido may stay, sit and shake a paw, but will it rescue?

Wynne's team set up an experiment to see how well 60 untrained dogs performed when set a simple task to "rescue" their owners. A dog's owner was placed inside a box with an easily opened door. As the dog was introduced to the room, its owner feigned distress by crying for help. 

The team found that only one-third of the dogs in his experiment were able to open the door of the box and rescue their owner.

For treats or for saving you, dogs have similar problem-solving capacity

Wynne said that observations suggested the dogs were willing to help. Their body language, and behaviours like whining, yawning and barking suggested anxiety at their owner's plight. However, though they were motivated, most of the dogs lacked the problem-solving capacity to free their owners.

To verify this question of motivation, the team set up another experiment in which dogs watched a researcher place a food treat in the box. Again only about one third of the dogs were able to open the box and gain access to the food.  

Wynne suggests this experiment shows that while our dogs may certainly care for us, we can't necessarily expect that care to translate into effective action in an emergency.

Video recording of trials in the experiment from the Canine science Collaboratory at ASU:

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