“Today, Peanut was responsible for saving the life of a 3-year-old little girl,” the woman wrote. “About 11 a.m. this morning, Peanut started going crazy at our house. She was running up and down the stairs, barking and yelping. She then went and got my husband, who was in the garage working on some projects, and alerted him that she wanted to go outside. … He let her outside, where she went barreling into the field behind our house at full speed. My husband followed her and to his surprise, he found a naked, shivering, 3-year-old girl curled up in a ball.”
It’s unclear from the letter whether Peanut heard or saw something strange through a window on that 32-degree morning or was just being rambunctious and then smelled or heard the child once she went outside. In any case, the girl was taken inside, where, Peanut’s owner wrote, she could summon just one word: doggy. An ambulance took her to a hospital, and she was found to be uninjured. Authorities located the girl’s parents at a nearby residence, which the Delta County Sheriff’s Office described as having “unsafe and unsanitary living conditions.” The girl and another young girl at the house are now in the custody of Child Protective Services, the office said on Facebook.
So Peanut is certainly a hero. But is she a symbol of dogs’ innate desire to be helpful when emergency strikes, a Lassie for our times? Probably not.
And that is because what Peanut did is quite unusual, at least according to the conclusions of one well-known study. In 2006, researchers in Canada actually tried to test dogs’ ability to seek help in emergencies. To do this, they came up with two pretty humorous experiments involving ordinary dogs — not service dogs, which are often trained to get help.
In the first, dog owners pretended to have heart attacks while in an open field, collapsing to the ground and remaining motionless for six minutes. In the second, the owner is pinned down by a bookcase for six minutes and asks the dog to seek help. In both scenarios, bystanders were nearby and ready to assist.
“In no case did a dog solicit help from a bystander,” the authors wrote. Only one dog made contact with a witness — a toy poodle that jumped into a bystander’s lap and “lay quietly, suggesting it was seeking comfort and not soliciting aid for its owner.”
It’s possible that the owners were poor actors. Nevertheless, the researchers wrote: “It is concluded that dogs did not understand the nature of the emergency or the need to obtain help.”
But wait. You’ve heard lots of stories of dogs like Peanut rescuing people, right? That may be because those are the stories that get attention — precisely because they are rare.
“We never hear about all the dogs who don’t act heroically — who observe the drowning child from the shore or fail to summon the authorities when their owner has a heart attack,” Alexandra Horowitz, the director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, said in an email. Such indifference, she added, would make sense: “How would they know how to act?”
But that doesn’t mean dogs can’t act heroically, Horowitz said. It just might mean we’re attributing to them the wrong motives — the kind of motives we attribute to people in these situations — when they do so.
“Should they notice something highly unusual, like a house fire, and bark and bark, this could in fact help save whoever is inside the house,” Horowitz said. “Their noticing is extraordinary.”
In other words: Dogs are special and observant, and they can be saviors, even if they aren’t trying to be.
That doesn’t make Peanut any less heroic for saving a little girl. It just makes her more dog than human.