Clive Wynne, Arizona State University professor of psychology, holding a puppy. Credit: Deanna Dent/ASU
Imagine 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 Joshua Van Bourg and Clive Wynne wanted to know when they gave dogs the chance to rescue their owners.
Until recently, little research has been done on dogs’ interest in rescuing humans, but that’s what humans have come to expect from their canine companions—a legend dating back to Lassie and updated by the popular Bolt.
“It’s a pervasive legend,” said Van Bourg, a graduate student in Arizona State University’s Department of Psychology.
Simply observing dogs rescuing someone doesn’t tell you much, Van Bourg said. “The difficult challenge is figuring out why they do it.”
So, Van Bourg and 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 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.
“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 t