Between the devil and the deep blue sea

A dog pulled a baby deer from the water off the coast of Long Island in New York when the owner was taking his golden retriever, Storm, for a walk Sunday when he “plunged into the water and started swimming out to the fawn, grabbed it by the neck, and started swimming to shore.”

The Strong Island Animal Rescue League, responded to the beach to care for the deer. But as they approached, the fawn got spooked and ran into the water again.

This is a example of being between the devil and the deep blue sea. Do you stay around when potential predators approach or do you take your chances with the water where you may drown?

This is part of the instinct response for the deer the water offers potential safety as it instinctively know predators are unlikely to follow and if they do their size and speed advantage is lost. So even though the water is freezing and there is a risk of drowning the flight instinct to approaching predators tells the deer the water is the safer option. The deer of course cannot know that the the potential predators are trying to save it.

So is this a cute story of a empathetic dog saving a stranded deer? Most likely not.

Dogs, by nature, will kill, and consume deer if they are hungry. However, a number of breeds will also save a drowning animal because it is in their nature to retrieve the prey, not to kill or to save the deer but as part of the pack instinct to bring prey for the pack or their masters. The pack in return provides security and improved kill efficient by working together in exchange for the shared food resources.

Retrievers in particular have been bred over many many generations to hunt and fetch. Although most pet dogs have lost the urge to actually make a kill, the prey drive is still very strong and they just love to chase fast-moving objects. This is why many breeds of dogs will chase animals but be somewhat confused as to what to do next if they catch the prey, basically they are waiting for the prey to run again so they can chase them. Golden retrievers in particular have very high retrieve drive which is what makes them so fantastic for hunting or playing fetch with the family. The retrieve drive is very important for hunting as it would be no use to humans to keep the animals pets if the dogs hunted and wandered off with the kill for themselves.

But could the dog actually feel empathy for the deer and being trying to save it from drowning?

Individuals frequently report that it seems like their dogs are studying their emotional state and reacting in much the identical manner that a person would, supplying sympathy and relaxation, or linking in their pleasure. Such incidents involving pet puppies seem to be rather common and at face value that they appear to show that dogs are revealing compassion for their owners. Empathy can be defined as the capacity to place oneself to the shoes of a different individual also share their emotions and feelings and to understand.

The challenge is that empathy is a somewhat intricate emotion. There is a consensus that the brain of a canine is quite similar to the brain of a human two in behaviors and capacity to 3-year-old. While there is some information suggesting that individual toddlers begin to demonstrate the beginnings of empathy, it’s fairly primitive at that time.

Scientists tend to think that something more primitive is going on, namely emotional contagion. This is the point where an individual reacts to the emotions of the other, without fully knowing what that individual is feeling. You can make a baby smile when your smiling at them but infants learn to associate this facial response with feelings of joy over time.

One study discovered was that the dog actually approached and attempted to comfort not just their owner, if they cried, but approached the stranger who appeared to be miserable and seemed to offer sympathy and support in much the manner that humans display compassion for one another. Additionally, we seem to have bred our dogs so that they not only show empathy, but also show sympathy, that is a desire to comfort those that may be in psychological distress.

The key here though if they can exhibit this behavior to other animals outside of the breeding that enables them to respond to or mimic human emotions which would be in their evolutionary benefit.

Other studies have shown dogs are more likely to show emotional responses to other dogs which they are familiar with than dogs they are not, again a pack evolutionary response. This might explain why they can become attached to other animals if they are regularly in contact with them – the desire to belong to and protect the pack.

But what about a random deer in distress in a a lake, there would be little evolutionary benefit to saving the deer to release it. This goes to the breed instincts, golden retreivers instinctively retrieve, and the dogs breeding instinct would tell it to return the prey to the pack or master.

Though some might argue a more complex response the most likely explanation for the dog behavior was an instinctive chase and fetch. An appeasement in the expectation of a reward. And the deer’s response an instinct to flee to the safest place – the water where a deer would have evolved to instinctively know there is more chance of evading a predators.