All those Lassie episodes and news stories on dogs that dialed 911 notwithstanding, will Fido really get help you are in trouble? Or will man's best friend let you die?
Someone actually did the scientific study to find out. Here's the story, from Alex Boese's Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments.
If you were trapped down a well like Timmy, what would your dog do? Would it run to get help, or would it wander off to sniff a tree? If you own a trained rescue dog it would probably get help, but what about an average dog, the kind whose greatest passions in life are (a) bacon, and (b) barking at the neighbor's cat? Would it figure out what to do in an emergency situation?
The First Experiment: Fake Heart Attack
To find out, researchers Krista Macpherson and William Roberts from the University of Western Ontario arranged for twelve dog owners to pretend to have a heart attack while walking their dogs through an open field. The owners all performed the exact same actions. When they reached a predesignated point in the field, marked by a target painted on the ground, they began breathing heavily, coughed, gasped, clutched their arm, fell over, and then lay motionless on the ground. A video camera hidden in a tree recorded what their dogs did next. In particular, the researchers were curious to see whether the dogs would seek help from a stranger sitting ten meters away.
The dogs - from a variety of breeds, including collies, German shepherds, rottweilers, and poodles - didn't do much to promote the theory of canine intelligence. They spent some time nuzzling and pawing their owners before taking the opportunity to roam around aimlessly. Only one dog- a toy poodle- directly made contact with the stranger. It ran over and jumped in the person's lap - not because it was trying to signal that its owner was in distress, but because it wanted to be petted. It probably figured, Uh-oh! My owner's dead I need someone to adopt me!
Concerned that the heart-attack scenario may have been too subtle for the dogs - perhaps they thought their owners were just taking a nap - and that the presence of the passive stranger might have suggested to the dogs that nothing was wrong, the researchers designed a second, more dramatic test.
The Second Experiment: Trapped Under a Bookcase
They arranged for each of fifteen dog owners to bring their dogs into an obedience school, greet a person in the front lobby, and then walk into a second room, where a bookcase then fell on the person. (Or, at least, the bookcase appeared to fall on the person. In reality, the researchers had shown each dog owner how to pull the piece of furniture down in such a way that it would look like an accident without actually hurting the person.) Pinned beneath the shelves, each owner let go of his or her dog's leash and began imploring the animal to get help from the person in the lobby.
Once again, the canine response to the emergency was somewhat lacking. The dogs spent a good deal of time standing by their owners, wagging their tails, but not a single one went to get help. The researchers concluded that "the fact that no dog solicited help from a bystander - neither when its owner had a ‘heart attack' nor when its owner was toppled by a bookcase and called for help - suggests that dogs did not recognize these situations as emergencies and/or did not understand the need to obtain help from a bystander." In other words, don't expect Fido to save your life.
The researchers were quick to point out that in some cases, dogs clearly have saved their owner's lives by seeking help. The media loves to report these stories, since they provide feel-good tales to end news broadcasts with - "Stay tuned for the dog that dialed 911!" But the researchers argue that such stories should not be considered indicative of typical dog behavior. So much for the urban legend of the life-saving pooch.
Did Timmy Actually Fall Down a Well?
And while we're on the subject of urban legends, here's another one. "Timmy fell down a well" is perhaps the most quoted line from the Lassie TV show. So much so that Jon Provost the actor who played Timmy, titled his autobiography Timmy's in the Well. However, although Timmy endured many calamities during the show - including falling into a lake, getting caught in quicksand, and being struck by a hit-and-run driver - he never once fell down a well.
Macpherson, K., & W.A. Roberts (2006). "Do Dogs (Canis familiaris) Seek Help in an Emergency?" Journal of Comparative Psychology 120 (2): 113-19.
This article, titled "Lassie, Get Help!" is reprinted here with permission. The internal headings are added here for clarity and ease-of-reading on your browser.
In this book, Alex described real scientific experiments that are outrageous, amusing, and bizarre.
Why can't people tickle themselves? Would an average dog summon help in an emergency? Will babies instinctively pick a well-balanced diet?
Find out the answers in Alex Boese's Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments [Amazon].