Altruism and Dogs

AltruismPeople have asked if service dogs work to help people because they are altruistic. Altruism, in its broadest sense, is showing unselfish concern for the welfare of others.  While many people may doubt that dogs are altruistic – they are certainly opportunistic! The latter has been the source of some of the funniest videos we see on line.

But evidence of dogs performing deeds we might consider altruistic is harder to come by.  Throughout history, there are many examples of altruism in people. But do dogs have this ability to act in an altruistic manner?

To answer this question, we turned to our scholar in residence and Professor Emeritus, Dr. Norman Wilson.

Altruism and Dogs
by Norman W Wilson, PhD

Altruism, for me, is a controversial topic. Before getting into that, a definition is in order Simply, altruism is the practice of a selfless concern for the well-being of others. From a zoological view, it is the behavior of an animal that benefits another at its own expense. The same applies to the human animal.
Philosopher-novelist, Ayn Rand, says the basic principle of altruism is “that man has no right to exist for his own sake—that service to others is the only justification for his existence.” She doesn’t end there. Continuing, she says, “self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue, and value.”
The complaint I have about Altruism is this: Someone has to be in need or suffering for one to be altruistic. Just think about that for a moment. Are you going to be the next person to suffer? Are you going to be the next person to need someone to suffer so you can be altruistic? Forgive this old philosophy professor’s digression.
Do animals, especially dogs, behave in such a way that demonstrates the primary defining clause of altruism? Despite my own trepidations, dogs do demonstrate, unequivocally, the willingness to sacrifice themselves for others, especially their human friends.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of examples of dogs making the supreme sacrifice for the human friend. [I prefer not to say master or owner.] A case in point is a dog named Lucy, a mixed breed. As reported by CBS, Boston, Lucy and her human friend were out for their usual walk. While crossing a street they were struck by a speeding car. The man suffered multiple injuries and was knocked unconscious. Lucy suffered a torn ACL and leg fractures. Despite her injuries, Lucy crawled to the nearest building and began barking. She continued to bark until someone came to see what was wrong. Lucy led them to her companion who was still in the street. Both survived their injuries.
ABC News reported a German shepherd mix in New York City was with its fellow dog when it was hit by a car and badly injured. When the police arrived, the shepherd would not allow them to go near its injured companion. Finally, the police were able to get the wounded dog and take it to a veterinarian. A board certified veterinarian and animal behaviorist, upon watching the video of the dog’s behavior said, “It’s possible—there was a social bond.” And there was. The protective shepherd was the injured dog’s offspring.
A report from Argentina gives an entirely new light on dog altruism. A dog found a newborn baby in a field. It carried the abandoned infant back to its home where it had six pups. The dog attempted to nurse the infant, keeping it warm with its own body. The dog’s owner found the baby and called authorities. Because of the dog’s efforts the baby survived.
In yet another instance, the following video has attracted worldwide attention:
You be the final judge. Do these wonderful dogs show the principle of altruism?
Norman Wilson, Ph.D.

Norman Wilson, Ph.D.

Norman W Wilson has earned four college degrees and holds an honorary degree of Professor Emeritus at Polk State College, Winter Haven, Florida. He is the author of college textbooks in the humanities, non-fiction books and novels, and has written more than 250 articles published on the internet. His books, listed below, are all available at
  • The Shaman’s Quest
  • The Shaman’s Transformation
  • The Shaman’s War
  • The Shaman’s Revelations
  • The Making of a Shaman
  • The Shaman’s Genesis
  • Shamanism What It’s All About
  • Activating Your Archetypes
  • Promethean Necessity and Its Implications for Society
  • DUH! The American Educational Disaster
  • So You Think You Want to be a Buddhist?
  • The Sayings of Esaugetuh
  • A Shaman’s Journey Revealed through Poetry with Gavriel Navarro
We'd love to get your comments and feedback on this topic and post. To add your comments, scroll to the bottom of the page and "Leave a Reply" (type your thoughts into the text box).

, ,

8 Responses to Altruism and Dogs

  1. Mary E. Trimble February 4, 2015 at 2:46 pm #

    I would say the evidence shows that dogs do have that special protective trait. When my second child was a toddler, he and our dog, a standard dachhound, were playing outside in our backyard. It was winter and my son wore a snowsuit. Somehow, they got through a fence and my son waded into an old river bed that had filled with rainwater and snow-melt. I heard the dog persistently barking at the back door. When I investigated he gave a sharp bark and turned toward the direction of my son. Then spun in a circle. His actions could well have saved my son’s life. He was already up to his waist in water. After that, I never took that dog, Sable, for granted. He was my hero.

  2. Patti Cole February 4, 2015 at 6:01 pm #

    Really enjoyed Norman’s article.

  3. Kathleen Kaska February 4, 2015 at 8:28 pm #

    Very interesting article. Altruism is not just a human behavior. Self-sacrificing is seen in other members of the animal kingdom. Parents are often observed protecting their young by luring predators away. It’s seen is many bird species.

  4. Dr. B February 4, 2015 at 9:00 pm #

    Kathleen — you are so right. Check out the following for a brief, but excellent article regarding altruism among animals:

  5. Hemlata Vasavada February 4, 2015 at 11:49 pm #

    This article is interesting and so true. I guess most animals as well as humans want to protect their loved ones. Mary’s experience with her dog proves the same.

  6. Bill Thorn February 5, 2015 at 5:04 am #

    Patricia, this is the best blog you’ve done so far. Kudos to Dr. Wilson as well for his learned input. There can be no doubt that dogs and all animals exhibit this trait from the continuing stories that come out about their actions i9n times of stress. The video is touching, especially the dog rescuing his pal from the freeway in the middle of traffic


  7. Kait Carson February 5, 2015 at 3:01 pm #

    Without a doubt I think dogs are altruistic. The examples above as well as stories of police and military dogs bear this out. Nurture or nature? That’s a different question. I had a German Shorthaired Pointer who would find lost children. No one taught him the skill. We discovered it one day when he found a child’s shoe in the park and tracked the child. The parents were frantically searching (we did not know that at the time), the dog just did what nature instructed. His payoff was love and hugs all around, which he ate up.

  8. John Finlayson February 18, 2015 at 6:00 am #

    I believe dogs demonstrate altruism, sometimes very dramatically (like the dog on the highway) but mostly in just going about their usual day to day activities. Just as some people show greater capacity for altruism than other people, I think some dogs show more altruism than others. They are social animals and their “family” members, whatever their species (humans, other dogs, even sometimes cats, etc.), are most important to them. I believe much of what they do is to serve their “family”. Serving their family is what I believe they consider their “reason to be”. And if they can have fun doing it, more the better.

Leave a Reply