Proof dogs really do want to be man’s best friend

What’s that, Lassie? Your owner is crying? And she’s stuck behind a strange Perspex door in a US laboratory? Time to leap into action!

An experiment has shown that dogs will rush to “rescue” their owners when they think they are in distress.

The study, Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs, sought to investigate whether dogs’ helpfulness increased when they thought they were coming to the assistance of a genuinely distressed human.

To do this, the researchers trapped 34 dog owners behind a see-through door, one at a time, and instructed them to either cry or hum Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The door, held in place by magnets, could be opened by a swift shove from a dog.

The question was, if they saw their owner crying would they rush to their aid? Behind the wet eyes of man’s best friend, does there beat the loyal heart of a noble Lassie? Or, when push comes to shove, will Rover fail to shove at all?

The scientists, reporting their findings in the journal Learning and Behavior, found strong support for the Lassie hypothesis. Both sets of dogs were as likely to open the door, but among the dogs who saw their owners crying, the average time taken to do this was just over 20 seconds.

Among the dogs whose owner was happily humming a nursery rhyme, it was almost 100 seconds.

Julia Meyers-Manor, from Ripon College in the US, said that even when some of the dogs did not open the door that did not mean they didn’t want to. “Most of the dogs responded to the crying, and in general they responded with a lot of distress,” she said. In fact, she thinks some were too distressed to be useful. “They were pacing and whining and were so upset they couldn’t work out what to do with the door.”

This points to an arguably significant flaw in the Lassie hypothesis. Just because a dog wants to help you does not mean that it can. While Lassie could communicate and assist with a range of catastrophes, from those involving wells to those involving malevolent ne’er-do-wells, other dogs are less able. One similar experiment found that when owners faked a heart attack, their dogs paced in a concerned manner but did not go for assistance.

Even accepting dogs’ limitations, they still have their uses. Professor Meyers-Manor was inspired to perform the experiment after an experience with her own dog. “My children buried me in a pile of pillows and I was calling to my husband to help,” she said.

“Instead my collie came running and saved me.” At the time, she had been performing experiments in animal empathy with rats, but kept coming up against the problem that it is difficult to tell the emotional state of a rat.

“I thought this would be so much easier if we used dogs and humans,” she said. She found, however, that humans were not as easy to work with as she had hoped. In particular, not all were naturals at pretending to cry. “Some were so bad they sounded like laughter,” she said. “Some people though had genuine tears when we came back in.”

They had to disqualify one dog after its owner ended the trial early in order to comfort it.

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