Run Lassie – no not over there! Damn you Lassie!
Scientists can be utter bastards some of the time. Not content with letting us unwashed masses revel in our ignorance, they systematically poke and prod the world around us, looking for answers to questions best left unanswered.
The latest casualty of this scientific tirade – my childhood. Specifically, the destruction of my faith in man’s best friend, embodied in the iconic form of Lassie.
For decades, Lassie was a symbol for all that was good in the world: unconditional friendship, teamwork, altruism in the face of danger, She was a canine beacon of light in a cynical, selfish world. Lassie was a good
Well, not any more. Published in the journal of Animal Behaviour, a team of researchers have emphatically shown that far from being a selfless companion pointing out danger and leading grown-ups to Timmy who fell down a well, dogs are really selfish bitches (the females anyway – the males are selfish dogs).
It’s been known for a long time that dogs are able to pick up on subtle emotional cues given off by their owners. So much so that dogs have been successfully trained to recognise when their epileptic owners are having seizures. And, thanks to TV shows like Lassie, it had been assumed that communication was a two way street – that dogs could relay useful information back to their owners. Well they can’t.
In the experiments, a scientist hid two objects in a room: one was the dog’s favourite toy, the other being an object humans would be interested in that a dog would not (in this case a holepunch). The dogs were made to see where the object was hidden. When another scientist entered, pretending to look for the holepunch, they used cues from the dog to try and discover the desired object. The dogs, however, significantly pointed to their toy more often than they did to the human’s. Even when this human was the dog’s owner – this pattern continued. I’m sure dogs aren’t really as selfish as I’m making out – they have been selected for thousands of years to assist humans. But, their own desire for their toy outweighed their wish to help us.
It seems that Lassie, even if she had seen little Timmy fall down the well, would not have communicated this fact to the kind sheriff. In reality, the end of most Lassie shows would have a contented dog chewing on her favourite bone, and a sad, lonely boy sat in the cold, dark well – unlikely ever to be rescued. Not really a happy ending. Thanks a lot scientists.
Juliane Kaminski, Martina Neumanna, Juliane Bräuera, Josep Calla, & Michael Tomaselloa (2011). Dogs, Canis familiaris, communicate with humans to request but not to inform Animal Behaviour DOI: http://dx..org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.06.015