Dogs help us… and now, we can help them help us

All dog lovers know that our dogs help us get through our day. They give us unconditional acceptance in a world where everyone judges us, including (or perhaps especially) our family and best friends. But the help our canine companions can offer can go so much farther than this…

Most of us are also aware of the highly trained dogs that pick up keys for people with disabilities, who sniff out cadavers, explosives or illegally imported items such as fruit into Australia, or those who bring the newspaper in to their owners every morning. For most of us dogs who help their owners and handlers at this level is a dream.

Assistance dog Isabel and Noah
Assistance dogs help people with physical disabilities
Then there are other canine companions who, without training, spontaneously help humans in distress by dragging us from burning buildings or staying with us in freezing weather, keeping your body temperatures warm.

Dogs are helpers. Your dog may never have been required to save your life but is it possible your dog is helping you every day? Or perhaps not yet helping but is motivated to do so, if you only knew how to encourage them?

A recently published study has looked at how pet dogs help humans. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany set up a room made of clear plexiglass and trained pet dogs to push a button to open a door into the room. Dogs were offered a treat, on the floor of the room, to motivate them. A set of keys then replaced the treat to see how motivated the dogs were to help.

As expected the dogs were not very motivated to push the button and enter the room unless a treat was present, when 90% would successfully enter.

An experimenter then tried to motivate the dogs to open the door by either talking (in a pre-determined fashion) to the dog about the keys, by pushing the door or by looking at the keys. Only a third of dogs tried to help the experimenter enter the room. The researchers then made the tasks more specific…

The experimenter now pointed at the button (we know that dogs can respond to human points) and also were allowed to communicate naturally with the dog eg. using the dog’s name.

Again, 90% of dogs helped in both these situations. They helped both their owners and a stranger enter the room.They helped without receiving a food reward.

From this study, we can conclude that dogs want to help us.

Do your dream of your dog helping you?
Do your dream of your dog helping you?
Maybe that’s obvious to most of us but this study has significance when we look at when and why dogs help us. Dogs will help us when it results in a reward for themselves (a food treat). They will also help us, with no obvious benefit to themselves, as long as they are exposed to our natural behaviours. In other words, we have to engage them by communicating clearly with them and, perhaps, using their names (in a positive manner).

Perhaps this goes back to our evolution together and how dogs have evolved to understand our body language, behaviour and even our spoken language.

For those dogs that are never, or rarely, given a chance a chance to help – could they be frustrated? Are they simply waiting on engagement with their humans, a clear command, the reward of the human’s pleasure? Perhaps we all need to give our dogs the opportunity to assist us.

Perhaps, instead of insisting that our dogs go through a doorway after us, ask them to push the door open for us. Giving them a job to do may enhance our relationship.

I imagine that many dogs truly believe that they are helping us. on a walk, for instance. Does your dog pull you along? Could it be possible that instead of controlling your life, they actually feel they are assisting your experience?

Our understanding of our pampered pooches is ever expanding and we should remain grateful for all the ways they attempt to engage with us and help humans.

In what ways does your dog help you?