Testing dog heroism
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2010:
(published October 5, 2010)
Do dogs have an innate capacity for heroism on behalf of
their people? Do dogs instinctively know how to fetch help for a
person in crisis?
Hal Herzog in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat
acknowledges the abundance of heroic dog stories–“Just Google ‘dog
saves owner,'” he challenges–but cites a 2006 study by University
of Western Ontario psychologist Bill Roberts and dog breeder/trainer
Krista Macpherson which found that none of a dozen dogs they tested
responded at all to either a man who was faking a heart attack or a
man who was pinned to the floor by a fake falling bookshelf.
Both tests, however, omitted recognition of the subject
dogs’ senses of smell–their dominant sense. The stimulus in either
case was auditory and visual, but a dog could easily smell the
hormone level of the alleged victim, and could probably tell thereby
whether the victim was genuinely in trouble or just playing a game,
even if the subtle differences in tone between a person acting and a
person who is actually in distress did not tip the dog off to the
Having logged details about 454 heroic dog episodes since
1993, ANIMAL PEOPLE compared the Roberts/Macpherson findings to real
life, sorting cases according to the primary sensory cues that told
the dog that there was danger and suggested a response.
Multiple primary cues were involved in about half the cases,
but in 270 cases, or 60%, the dog smelled a hazard which was not
easily seen or heard, such as smoke from a night housefire or
leaking gas, and took immediate action.
In 261 cases, 58%, a sound–most often a cry for help–was
a primary cue, and vision was a primary cue in 244 cases (54%).
However, in almost all of these cases, multiple senses were used to
confirm the first information that the dog received. Few cases
descriptions eliminated the possibility that odor was involved in the