Hero Dogs: The Science Behind The Stories

As long as there have been dogs, there have been hero dogs. Over the centuries, dogs have been sainted and memorialized in bronze for their heroic deeds. More recently, fictional dogs like Lassie and Rin Tin Tin have represented canine heroism on TV and in the movies. The American Humane Society has even created a Hero Dog Award.

So what is it about dogs that allows them to play the hero to humans in need? Our science team looked at five stories of daring dogs to try to make scientific sense of what makes man’s best friend a hero.

Sergeant Stubby: The Most Decorated Dog of WWI

Dog Wearing Military Medals
THE STORY:  Stubby, a stray pit bull mix who had shown up during training drills, was America’s first war dog. During the first World War, he spent 18 months in the trenches of France. After a gas attack by enemy soldiers, Stubby learned to recognize the smell of mustard gas and to warn his unit of oncoming attacks. He used his keen sense of hearing to detect artillery shells before they landed, and ground offenses as soon as they began. The troops in his unit said Sergeant Stubby could differentiate between German and English troops, and would lead the wounded back to the lines or call for attention if they were too hurt to move. And if that weren’t enough, Sergeant Stubby also assisted in the capture of an enemy spy and helped free a French town from the Germans. After the war, Stubby was smuggled back home, where he met three presidents and became the mascot of the Georgetown Hoyas.

THE SCIENCE: Memory seems to be one of our canine companions’ strong suits. Many research studies, along with Dognition Data, have shown that dogs are apt at learning and remembering associations. Stubby not only remembered the association of the poisonous gas, but seems to have attempted to warn others about the danger as well. This intentional warning of others is rare in the animal kingdom, and contributed to making Stubby such a special pup.

Roselle: Guide Dog Saves Lives on 9/11

THE STORY: Michael Hingson, who is blind, was working on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the side of the building. Roselle, Michael’s guide dog of two years, led Michael and others down 1,463 stairs as the building crumbled around them. She stayed calm throughout the day, continuing to work when needed, and offering love and kisses to anyone who could use them. “I cannot say enough about the incredible job she did,” Michael wrote on his web site the day after Roselle passed away in 2011.

THE SCIENCE: Dogs’ incredible ability to understand our gestures and learn from us has made them incomparable and invaluable service animals — not to mention the cross-species bond they’re capable of forming with us! There are many studies that note these communication skills, but Roselle took her duties further than most people would expect. She remained steady in a time of unfathomable disaster, even when her own life was at risk.

Bobbie the Wonder Dog: An Incredible Journey Home

THE STORY: In 1923 a family from Silverton, Oregon brought their dog Bob with them on a road trip to Indiana, where he got loose and ran away. After an exhaustive search, the family headed back to Oregon with heavy hearts. Six months later, one of the children was walking down the street in Silverton when her friend spotted a familiar dog. It was Bob! The family dog had somehow made the trip — 2551 miles! — back home. “Bobbie the Wonder Dog” became a local celebrity, earning a silver medal from the Oregon Humane Society and even playing himself in a silent film based on his story.

THE SCIENCE: While Bobbie’s journey might have been the longest, there are other stories of dogs who have found their way home over long distances. Bobbie may have relied on a mental map that he formed from the journey to Indiana to navigate back to his family home. You may have wondered what your dog sees from the car window. Is he or she building a mental map or just enjoying the stimulation? Dognition is currently studying navigational ability in a spatial navigation game that we’ve created for our subscribers. Has your dog ever made an incredible journey?

Zander: Lovesick Dog Finds Owner in Hospital

THE STORY: Last October, John Dolan of Islip, New York received a most unexpected phone call. A man had found John’s dog, Zander, and asked that John come to the hospital to pick him up.

The funny thing was that John was already in the hospital, and his wife was asleep at their home two miles away. John was finally able to reach his wife, who confirmed that their Husky/Samoyed mix was indeed missing, and that prior to that Zander had been moping around the house for the days John had been hospitalized.

THE SCIENCE: What makes Zander’s story so remarkable is that he had never previously visited the hospital. He wasn’t returning to a location he knew about, like Bobbie the Wonder Dog, but uncovering his owner’s location in an urban jungle.

Dogs are known to have great noses, with hundreds of millions of scent receptor cells, compared to the measly few million receptors in the human nose. Perhaps Zander detected that John’s wife carried her husband’s scent, mixed with that of the hospital, and then used that to sniff out the building’s location. If this was the case, the incredible feat is that Zander was able to connect the two smells and infer the location of his owner. The Dognition games explore similar inference strategies, and we’d love to see how Zander would perform on them!

Duke: Shelter Dog Saves Baby

THE STORY: Around the same time as Zander’s remarkable walk to the hospital, a dog named Duke became a hero to his family in Connecticut. In the middle of the night, Duke ran into the Brousseaus’ bedroom, jumped on the bed, and began to shake uncontrollably. Since this display was out of the ordinary for the well-behaved Duke, Jenna Brousseau and her husband jumped out of bed and followed Duke to their baby Harper’s room. The 9-week-old girl wasn’t breathing. The Brousseaus called 911 in time to save Harper’s life. “He’s the perfect dog,”  Jenna said of Duke. “He was meant to be ours, and meant to be hers.”

THE SCIENCE: Duke’s potential ability to recognize distress, realize that Jenna and her husband were unaware of the danger, and then alert them, is incredible. Research has shown that dogs can be very effective as early-warning systems for seizures, and even cancer. While it remains unclear whether Duke detected what was specifically wrong with Harper, he could have noticed a heartbeat irregularity or even an olfactory cue. The end result is that Duke was able to communicate the danger in a life-saving manner. Detection and timely communication make Duke a true hero.

While these dogs’ stories are remarkable, these heroes relied on strategies that all dogs are capable of, making every dog a potential hero.


Find out what strategies your fuzzy hero uses with Dognition.