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It might be just a holdover from childhood fantasies, but most dog owners believe that one of the special defining aspects of dogs is their desire to help us. At some level, we trust that our dogs will have the intelligence to recognize when their help is needed, and the courage to place their personal safety at risk to save the lives of their beloved human families. Perhaps it harkens back to a primitive human being huddled near a small fire, looking fearfully into the darkness yet somehow reassured because a dog is resting quietly nearby. There is an enduring psychological comfort that we seem to draw from a confidence that in a time of crisis our dogs will turn into heroes, saviours, rescuers or faithful defenders, just like Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Benji and every other dog star we have seen depicted in the movies.

Take the recent case of 11-year-old Austin Forman of Boston Bar, B.C. He was out gathering firewood, accompanied by his golden retriever, Angel, when she began barking frantically. A few moments later, he saw a cougar charging toward him. Suddenly, the cat was intercepted as Angel rushed to the boy's rescue. As the two animals were locked in combat, Austin had time to dash into the protection of his nearby house. An emergency phone call brought an RCMP officer, who happened to be only minutes away. When he arrived, the animals were still fighting, but he managed to shoot the cougar. Angel's first response on staggering to her feet, wounded and bleeding, was to weakly return to Austin and lick the hand of her young charge. Austin's mother, Sheri, summarized the feelings of all present when she said, "Now she's our guardian angel."

While this case is heartwarming and supports the idea that our furry friends can rise to the stature of heroes if circumstances require them to so, for a psychologist, or a researcher concerned with the evolution of behaviour, what happened here is a puzzle. Why should dogs try to help us? More specifically, why should a dog put its life at risk to save a human being.

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As part of the research I did for my book Why Does My Dog Act That Way?, I looked at 1,006 published reports of cases where dogs saved the lives of people.

Because I was interested in what dogs naturally do, I eliminated any reports involving guide dogs, police patrol dogs and search-and-rescue dogs that were deliberately trained to assist people, even if the animal was acting heroically by doing something that it was not trained for, such as a guide dog that defended its blind owner from the attack of a mugger. I also excluded any stories that appeared to be simply unbelievable, such as "Dog Drives Sick Owner to the Hospital."

HOW DOGS BECOME HEROES

My analysis showed four ways in which dogs sometimes save human lives. The most common (accounting for about 35 per cent of the cases) involves sounding the alarm. These are cases when dogs set up a commotion and frantically alert family members because of smoke, fire, gas leaks and so forth. This makes sense, since part of the domestication process of dogs included carefully selecting animals that bark. Wild canines, such as wolves, seldom bark. Our primitive ancestors recognized that the bark of a dog could be helpful, alerting a village to the approach of predatory animals or threatening strangers. A dog in their home could serve as a sort of biological burglar alarm. So we modified the genetic makeup of dogs to bias them toward warning us of danger. This is the kind of help that Angel at first offered to Austin, alerting him to impending danger from the cougar by barking, although in this instance, the warning was not understood and more direct assistance was needed.

The second most common form of assistance (about 22 per cent) involves bringing help to a victim. This is more complex, since the dog must recognize a problem affecting a human, then find another human to assist, and finally guide him or her back to the site of the trouble. This behaviour usually consists of finding a potential rescuer, barking at them, then running in the direction of the problem, and repeating this until the human actually follows the dog. Max Lovett of Alliston, Ont., and his Irish setter, Caleigh, provide a recent example. When Mr. Lovett had a heart attack while playing in a snowy field with Caleigh, the dog raced to a nearby farmer and brought him to his master's aid before he froze to death on that cold winter day.

The third form of assistance (about 20 per cent) involves pulling, grabbing or pushing people to safety. These include the cases where a dog saves a drowning person, or someone who has fallen through ice, by pulling them to safety. Big dogs, such as Newfoundlands, seem to be specialists at this type of rescue.

In the movies, heroic dogs are most often called upon to do battle. Usually this requires them to physically protect their master from bad men with guns, marauding grizzly bears, escaped circus tigers and so forth. In reality, these cases of physical intervention for protection, such as Angel leaping forward to confront the cougar, involve just under one in every five cases (18 per cent). These are also the cases that most puzzle researchers.

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DARWIN'S TAKE ON SACRIFICE

We know that dogs often risk their own lives and safety to help human beings. A traditional view of how evolution works, however, suggests that they should not. The theory of evolution was based on a concept of "the survival of the fittest," in which fitness is measured by how many offspring an animal will produce. In 1871, Charles Darwin wrestled with the problem of heroic acts when he said, "He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature."

When Darwin looked beyond the individual, things made more sense, since the presence of individuals who are helpful and self-sacrificing might improve the likelihood that a family, group, tribe or species would survive. Darwin suggested that "a tribe including many members who were always ready to give aid to each other and sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection." This selection would favour a genetic makeup that includes the gene or genes making individuals more likely to be helpful, even at risk to themselves.

For this theory to work, however, heroic individuals have to be discriminating about whom they are willing to risk their lives for. It would require heroes to help not just anybody, but to be more likely to act when their own relatives are involved. This is important since relatives share certain genes with one another. Thus when an individual who is carrying the helpful gene saves the life of a relative, there is a reasonable likelihood that the individual who is saved is also carrying copies of that gene. How likely this is depends on how closely the individuals are related. This means that genes for helping can spread by natural selection. Although that gene causes an individual to behave in a way that might reduce the individual's own fitness, it will increase the fitness of his relatives, who will have a greater than average chance of carrying the gene themselves.

If helping requires kinship, this "survival of the genes" explanation of why dogs help people would seem to fail, since dogs and humans are not even of the same species. Here again, however, man seems to have intervened. Our domestic dogs have been bred to accept socialization or identification, not just with other dogs, but with people who care and are kind to them. Simply living with particular group of humans causes dogs to view those people as packmates and perhaps even as family members with strong kinship ties, despite their difference in species. Thus in times of crisis, dogs will come to our defence because they feel that they are defending their family.

Human beings step in to assist in the evolution of these helpful behaviours. It is certainly true that heroic dogs get benefits as a result of assisting people. A canine hero will get good housing, food, protection and medical care, and their puppies will also be cared for. In this way humans help to preserve the genes of the heroic dog.

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One can speculate that heroic dogs, in turn, might have an effect on human genetics and evolution. Because it is more likely that dogs will assist those people who have been kind to them, this might allow caring people to live longer. This means that a dog's heroism toward people might make it more likely that the caring genes in humans will also be passed on and multiply in the future.

We infer that Austin Forman must have been kind enough to Angel that they bonded to the degree that she would risk her life for him. So thank you, Angel, for keeping him alive, helping genetically to strengthen and ennoble our species.

Stanley Coren is professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. His most recent book is The Modern Dog.

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