Heroic Dog Saves Friend from River! Or He Just Wants a Stick.

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Sorta transcript:

I know there are a lot of really horrific things happening in the world right now, all of which touch on the topics of science denial, skepticism, and feminism that I specialize in. But I need a break, guys, so let’s talk about a cute dog video someone sent me last week.

The clip was accompanied with the description “dog rescues another dog,” and sure enough it appears to show a black dog swept away by a strong current with a stick in his mouth. He’s barely able to keep his head above water. A yellow dog stands on the rocky river bank, and leans over and grabs the stick as the black dog goes past, holding on with all his might and eventually pulling the black dog to safety.

Because of all the terrible things in the world, this video is exactly what a lot of people want to see right now: a selfless act of heroism, involving nothing but lovable dogs. It truly is uplifting and wonderful, and that’s why I’m going to ruin it for you right now.

Dogs, in general, don’t do that. Dogs are very smart, but they’re not human-smart. Without training, they don’t generally have the ability to quickly realize someone is in danger and formulate a plan to rescue them.

More than that, dogs aren’t well known for using tools. A few animals other than humans have been shown to use tools, like some birds and chimps using sticks to pull ants out of tree trunks, or dolphins using sponges to protect their noses from coral while foraging for food. Dogs, though, don’t really do it. There are a few grey area instances on record, like a dingo using a table to reach a target, but that’s about it. Nothing widespread, and certainly not something generated spontaneously in a critical situation like this.

Had the video shown the yellow dog pulling the black dog out by the scruff of his neck, I’d buy it, but he didn’t: he grabbed the stick. And my first thought, because I’m a horrible cynical skeptic, was this: “He wanted that god damn stick.”

Sure enough, I tracked down the longer video that the clip came from, and it shows what I suspected: it appears that someone threw the stick into the river, which is actually quite calm before it narrows. The black dog jumps in to get it. The yellow dog grabs the stick, and the black dog holds on to not give it up. Once the black dog is out of the river, the yellow dog wrestles the stick away from him and walks away with it. He won!

The dog’s owner also uploaded several other videos, showing that both dogs are very good swimmers and that the “rapids” are extremely short, so the black dog was likely never in any danger at all, except for the possibility of a few bumps and bruises from the rocks.

So no, the dog isn’t a hero. He’s just a good boy who wanted a stick. Our human reaction to the clip is called anthropomorphization–applying human characteristics where they don’t belong. I get it, because I have a puppy now and I constantly want to believe that he’s thinking and feeling things far beyond his mental abilities. Like, I want to believe that he understood me when I told him to pick up his wookiee and go lay down in his crate. He did it, but he also pooped on the carpet like 5 minutes later. Then he tried to eat it. I have to learn to accept that my 10-week old puppy may not be a super genius.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. It’s my understanding that for puppies, eating feces is a natural and healthy behavior, and many animals have good reasons to do it. It’s anthropocentric to use that, in particular, as a reason to think an animal is unintelligent.

  2. I didn’t like the video at all, for the following reason: If the beloved dog were really in terrible danger, what was the owner doing, standing calmly on the bank with a camera, filming the whole thing? If it were my pet, the camera would have been the last thing on my mind, and I sure as hell wouldn’t be waiting for a second dog to do the honors of rescuing its sibling (or whatever you call a dog that shares your position in the family)? A lot of videos annoy me for a similar reason. They seem completely staged. Same with parents who already know their child is upset or confused, and yet they fire up the camera to get the whole thing for posterity. Put down the freakin’ camera and go help your kid! Or dog…

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