One of my favourite sections of Alexandra Horowitz’s wonderful book “Inside Of A Dog” is where she describes some experiments done to test the heroic abilities of dogs. You know, that quality that we hear about where a dog will drag his master to safety from a burning building or stand guard over an injured child and bark until help arrives. I give Horowitz a lot of credit for choosing to test this and for the care she took in setting up the scenarios for testing.
In one test, the owner was to fake a heart attack and fall to the ground “unconscious.” A short distance away was a “bystander” on a bench that the dog could run to for help. Horowitz tested 100 dogs. Of that test sample a staggering number of dogs actually went to get help – zero. That’s right, NO dog actually went to the stranger to get help for their fallen owner. Apparently a couple sniffed around for a bit but ALL of the dogs eventually wandered off.
Horowitz wondered if the dogs could sense that there was no “real” crisis here, that the owners were merely faking. So she devised another test in a building where the dog and owner would greet a person in an office type room before proceeding into the next room which had various shelves with books on them. At one place in the room, a bookcase would fall on the owner and trap them. The owners would then tell their dogs to go get help. The dogs could see that their owners was trapped and they knew where the other human was – in the next room just a few feet away. This time the results were remarkable. Once again, NOT ONE SINGLE DOG went to get help. Even after being asked.
Why is this section of Horowitz’s book one of my favourites? Simple. It points out our very human cognitive bias about dogs. We WANT to believe in their “noble” character, that they love us and would do anything for us. But dogs do things for DOG reasons, not for HUMAN reasons. And these experiments are a wonderful demonstration of that concept. It’s easy to forget that when an incident occurs where it APPEARS that a dog has “saved” their owner, it makes for a great news story. If such stories were common place, we would likely not hear about them at all. But because we sometimes see these coincidental scenarios, we want to believe that we are seeing the “hero” dog in action when, according to Horowitz’s studies, they don’t really exist.
And this begs the question, how much of what we believe about dogs is our own wishful thinking? Over a decade ago, I tossed out a lot of my own preconceived notions about dogs and training. Some of what I knew about dogs turned out to be pretty accurate but much of it was inaccurate or outright wrong. More importantly, I found myself open to learning a lot of wonderful things about dogs that I had never considered. They are incredibly observant. They are eager learners. They are capable of much more complex tasks than I believed. And their senses are incredible if you depend on them for what they are best at (i.e., dogs approach the world with their noses first because of their incredible sense of smell).
For me it was much more important to change the way I THINK about dogs than it was to change the way I TRAINED dogs. Once I armed myself with a more realistic, fact based perspective on dogs, everything became easier. It seems that once you accept who and what dogs are, as opposed to what we wish they were, communicating with them becomes MUCH easier!