A new study shows that truly, our canine companions really do want to save us from harm - just as long as they know how .
In other to get a clear idea of whether dogs were acting on an impulse to rescue, rather than a just an aspiration to get food or simply to make contact with their owners, the team of researchers ran series of cautiously constructed experiments.
The main tests involved presenting to 60 pet dogs, their owner trapped inside a large box, with a delicate door that could easily be shifted by the pooches.
The dog owners were then told to cry for help from inside the box in an authentic way.
"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 take a closer look. 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." says psychologist Joshua Van Bourg, from Arizona State University.
That is to say, the study suggests that more of the canines really wanted to rescue their owners, but didn't know how.
In another test where food was dropped into the box in view of the dogs, with no owners inside, 19 out of the 60 dogs retrieved the snack compared with 20 out of 60 for the owners-in-distress tests.
Out of those 19 dogs, 16 of them also released their owners from detention in the other experiment: which is a hit rate of 84 percent. It seems most canine companions want to assist us any time we are in trouble, but they need to know how to be able to do it first.
The researchers tried other ways to try and puzzle out the dogs' motivations. Owners were not allowed to say their dogs' names(to make sure the dogs weren't just following orders) and in another test, the owners were told to simply read a magazine while inside the box to compare it with the other test where they were in distress.
"During the distress test, the dogs were much more stressed. When their owner was distressed, they barked more, and they whined more. In fact, there were eight dogs who whined, and they did so during the distress test. Only one other dog whined, and that was for food." says Van Bourg.
In the test where the owner sat and read in the box, 16 of the dogs opened the door to release the owner (or to get closer to the owner). The researchers say that just being with their owner is a strong motivation for dogs, but knowing that the owners are in distress adds even more urgency.
Some of the tests were repeated too. When the distress test was repeated, the dogs' anxiety levels stayed about the same, but with repeated reading tests, the pooches seemed to be less stressed each time around.
That would appear to show "emotional contagion", according to the researchers – where emotions are passed from owner to dog. The fact that almost as many dogs opened the box to get food as to rescue their owners suggests that the two actions are seen as similarly rewarding by the pets.
Yes, we can't read dogs' minds (which is unfortunate). So in other to get a better understanding of what's going on and what drives the rescue desire, More experiments are needed.
"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." says psychologist Clive Wynne, from Arizona State University.
The outcome from the control tests shows that dogs who fail to rescue their owner are unable to understand what to do – it's not that they don't care about their owner.
"Next, we want to explore whether the dogs that rescue do so to get close to their people, or whether they would still open the box even if that did not give them the opportunity to come together with their humans."