Dogs are ‘wired’ to rescue their owners (and feel stressed when you are stressed)

·3 min read
Boy hiking with dog in mountains
Dogs will rescue their owners, a new study has found. (Getty)

If you’ve ever felt that your loyal four-legged companion would leap to your rescue, just like film dogs Lassie or Bolt, we have good news – you’re right.

New research has shown that a majority of dogs will run to the aid of owners in trouble, even if they have not been trained to rescue human beings.

Up to 84% of dogs will try to save their owners, if they know how to help, the study showed.

Researchers found that, in a simulated test, dogs were more likely to go to the aid of their owners than they were to get food.

The research also showed that dogs are stressed when they see their owners in distress.

Read more: Dog rescuer who smashed car window ‘won’t face police action’

Psychologists Joshua Van Bourg and Clive Wynne, of Arizona State University, assessed how likely 60 pet dogs were to rescue their owners using simulated tests.

Dog owners pretended to be confined inside a large box and shouted in distress, “help” or “help me!”

They were not allowed to use their dog’s name (which would have meant the animal acted out of obedience.

The box had a lightweight door which the dogs could open.

Prof Van Bourg said: "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.

Read more: Pet owner slammed over makeshift dog carrier on car

"That's because two things are at stake 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.

In another 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.

Prof Van Bourg said: "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."

The dogs also appeared to be stressed out when they saw their owners in distress, the researchers said.

Prof Van Bourg added: "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."

"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.”

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