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Will Dogs Really Rescue Humans?

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D:        Yaël, all those TV shows and movies that show dogs rescuing humans must be bogus. Evolutionary theory tells us that animals are selfish. They act to spread their own genes by surviving and reproducing.

Y:        Don’t be too sure about that, Don. There are lots of circumstances where cooperation and mutual aid can help animals survive and reproduce, and in these circumstances evolution can promote helpful and unselfish behavior. A study by American researchers published in 2020 shows that domestic dogs really will rescue their owners even when they haven’t been trained to do it for a reward.

D:        How did they do that?

Y:        The researchers staged an experiment with pet dogs and their human owners.  The experiment involved a large box which the dogs had to open under three different conditions.  In the first case, the dog had to open a box to get food placed inside. This test showed that the dogs were capable of opening the box.  Then the researchers tested the dogs under two other conditions.  In one, their owner sat in the box, calmly reading a book aloud. In the other, the owner was coached to act distressed and upset. The owners were taught to avoid explicitly calling their dog.

D:        Very clever.  What did they find?

Y:        The dogs opened the box more often and faster when their owner was distressed than when the owner was just sitting in the box reading.  The researchers claimed this was evidence that domestic dogs are capable of empathy and pro-social behavior.

D:        If that’s so, then maybe understanding how these behaviors evolved in dogs might help us understand how they evolved humans, too.
Dogs

(Wikimedia Commons)

One interpretation of evolutionary theory is that animals are selfish, and that they act to spread their own genes by surviving and reproducing.

However, there are lots of circumstances where cooperation and mutual aid can help animals survive and reproduce, and in these circumstances evolution can promote helpful and unselfish behavior. A study by American researchers published in 2020 shows that domestic dogs really will rescue their owners even when they haven't been trained to do it for a reward.

The researchers did this by staging an experiment with pet dogs and their human owners. The experiment involved a large box which the dogs had to open under three different conditions. In the first case, the dog had to open a box to get food placed inside.

This test showed that the dogs were capable of opening the box. Then the researchers tested the dogs under two other conditions. In one, their owner sat in the box, calmly reading a book aloud. In the other, the owner was coached to act distressed and upset. The owners were taught to avoid explicitly calling their dog.

The dogs opened the box more often and faster when their owner was distressed than when the owner was just sitting in the box reading. The researchers claimed this was evidence that domestic dogs are capable of empathy and pro-social behavior. If that's so, then maybe understanding how these behaviors evolved in dogs might help us understand how they evolved humans, too.

Reviewer: Evan MacLean, the University of Arizona

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