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The evolution of heroism Add to ...

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.

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."


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.

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