Domestic dogs have assisted humans for millennia. However, the extent to which these helpful behaviors are prosocially motivated remains unclear. To assess the propensity of pet dogs to spontaneously and actively rescue distressed humans, this study tested whether sixty pet dogs would release their seemingly trapped owners from a large box. To examine the causal mechanisms that shaped this behavior, the readiness of each dog to open the box was tested in three conditions: 1) the owner sat in the box and called for help (“Distress” test), 2) an experimenter placed high-value food rewards in the box (“Food” test), and 3) the owner sat in the box and calmly read aloud (“Reading” test).
Dogs were as likely to release their distressed owner as to retrieve treats from inside the box, indicating that rescuing an owner may be a highly rewarding action for dogs. After accounting for ability, dogs released the owner more often when the owner called for help than when the owner read aloud calmly. In addition, opening latencies decreased with test number in the Distress test but not the Reading test. Thus, rescuing the owner could not be attributed solely to social facilitation, stimulus enhancement, or social contact-seeking behavior.
Dogs displayed more stress behaviors in the Distress test than in the Reading test, and stress scores decreased with test number in the Reading test but not in the Distress test. This evidence of emotional contagion supports the hypothesis that rescuing the distressed owner was an empathetically-motivated prosocial behavior. Success in the Food task and previous (in-home) experience opening objects were both strong predictors of releasing the owner. Thus, prosocial behavior tests for dogs should control for physical ability and previous experience.