If You Were Trapped Would Your Dog Want to Rescue You? New Study Reveals the Answer

Is your dog like Lassie?  If you were trapped on thin ice would your dog rescue you? Would he or she even want to?  The results of a new study offer some insight into the answers…

What to do. You’re a dog. Your owner is trapped in a box and is crying out for help. Are you aware of his despair? If so, can you set him free? And what’s more, do you really want to?

That’s what two scientific researchers wanted to know when they gave dogs the chance to rescue their owners.

Study overview


Researchers set up an experiment assessing 60 pet dogs’ propensity to rescue their owners. None of the dogs had training in such an endeavor.

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.

Study Results Overview

Approximately one-third of the dogs participating in the study rescued their distressed owner.  According to the researchers this is impressive when you take a closer look…

There are actually two separate issues at play 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 researchers explored this factor in control tests — tests that were lacking 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.

“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.”

-Joshua Van Bourg, graduate student researcher, Arizona State University, Department of Psychology

The Takeaway

“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.

-Dr. Clive Wynne, professor of psychology and director of the Canine Science Collaboratory, Arizona State University, Department of Psychology


Journal Reference: Joshua Van Bourg, Jordan Elizabeth Patterson, Clive D. L. Wynne. Pet dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) release their trapped and distressed owners: Individual variation and evidence of emotional contagion. PLOS ONE, 2020; 15 (4): e0231742 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0231742





Posted by KW