Thursday, May 10, 2012

Hero Dog

When I was 12 years old, my parents got me a pet snake. I use to pick it up and let it snake over my arms and hands. It didn’t take long to recognize that it had a preference for my neck and would often stop moving and remain coiled there. It also didn’t take long for me to explain that behavior by anthropomorphosis. The snake was coiled, motionless around my neck as a sign of affection. It had grown comfortable with me, in a trusting sort-of-way, and found a place to snuggle. We were friends.

At 12, this explanation was the best I could come up with. Now I understand the better explanation is that my neck is warm and snakes move towards warmth.

So, what are we to make of a dog that apparently sacrifices itsown safety, maybe its own life, to save the life of its owner? Well, we could say just that, it was a “sacrifice”, and bring into the dog's world the notion of the lesser value of its life relative to the greater value of its owners. We can call the dog a “hero”, a title given to few humans (in fact, we are so guarded against use of the word “hero” for humans that we have created an entirely new category of “true hero” just for clarity).

But, is the dog a hero? Did it sacrifice? Dose it understand the concepts of force and momentum to perceive the train as a threat? Does it understand the human condition of “loss of consciousness” to realize that its owner wasn’t going to move on her own? Probably not. So, how do we explain such behavior? By remembering that dogs are predators and scavengers. After a kill or a find, many predator/scavengers will drag the kill to a safe location before eating; a “drag away” behavior. This is done to minimize the chance of losing your hard-earned kill to another predator/scavenger. It’s a behavior molded over millennia of natural selection; If you ate in the open, you were more likely to fight to keep your kill, if you dragged it away, you got more to eat. The “drag away” predator/scavengers left behind lots of “drag away” offspring, from which dogs are descended.

Lilly was probably exhibiting a simple behavior pattern, similar to the patterns that make them chase and return a stick, tug on a rope, or burry a bone. Lilly probably thought her lifeless owner was food, and was simply trying to drag her away, to eat in relative safety, but was too slow.

So, cheers to you Lilly, for exhibiting typical predator/scavenger behavior. You are a role model for dogs everywhere and a worthy ambassador of your rich and long ancestry. Oh, and thanks for trying to drag that hunk of food to a safer eating place. Good dog.

Copyright 2012 theBIOguy


  1. No, genius. Lily was a trained assistant dog. The selfless motivation (altruism) might not have been behind this, but the conditioning was.

    By the way, her owner was not lifeless, just unconscious. As the owner was an alcoholic, had the dog intended to eat her unconscious body, he/she would have had countless other times to do so.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, although in all modesty, you are not the first to call me a genius. I am pleased to know that you agree with my primary objection that the behavior is not (in fact can not) be motivated by altruism. Since most dog conditioning is accomplished with the promise of a food reward, Lily's action was probably (a word I use throughout my post) motivated by a desire to get a meal. However, we can respectfully disagree on what she was hoping to eat.