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Susan ORLEAN: Hello! Oh, you know, what? Can we grab him? I’m sorry. Oh, come on. Come on, come on, come on. Come. Hi. Oh, my God. I’m so happy to— Wait, wait, wait. I’ve got to get—

Welcome to Off Leash. I’m dog cognition researcher Alexandra Horowitz.

Alexandra HOROWITZ: Oh, my goodness. It’s so exciting.

ORLEAN: It’s very exciting.

This is the podcast where we explore the relationship between humans and dogs. I’ll invite an interesting person — and their dog — to join me for a walk, and then we’ll see where the walk takes us. Today on the show, it takes us into the stories of hero dogs — and the question of whether we can call dogs heroes at all.

ORLEAN: Okay, Buckles, we’re going to go. Oh, you know, I’ve got to take treats. You know what? Can I give him to you and—?

HOROWITZ: Yeah. I’ve got him. All right, Buck. You want to go for a walk?

ORLEAN: We’ll go for a walk, buddy boy.

I live in New York. But the other day, I was out on the West Coast, so I stopped by to see my friend, Susan.

ORLEAN: My name is Susan Orlean, and I’m a writer. And we are currently in the Toluca Lake neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Well, I wasn’t there just to see Susan. I also wanted to spend time with her smooth fox terrier, Buck.

ORLEAN: He has a clown-y quality. And also, if you were a clown, this would be the kind of dog you’d want. Here, pup. You’ve been so good. Buck, come here. I’ll give you a little treat, because we’re talking about you.

Now, all dogs are what’s called digitigrade, meaning they walk on their tiptoes, essentially — not their palms or heels. But this is especially apparent in the way Buck kind of primly struts down the sidewalk.

HOROWITZ: Oh, there is something kind of— performance—

ORLEAN: You can just picture him on a beach ball.

HOROWITZ: Running and keeping it—


HOROWITZ: Keeping it in place—

ORLEAN: Yeah. And bouncing it on his nose. Wow, I think he’s tired.

Susan has been a New Yorker staff writer since 1992, and has published numerous bestselling books, including The Orchid Thief, which became the 2002 movie Adaptation. Her latest book is a collection of essays on animals, called On Animals. But especially useful to us today is her 2011 biography about one of the biggest celebrities of the 20th century.


Susan’s book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend chronicles one German Shepherd’s rise to fame in the years following the First World War — in movies, and then in T.V. shows, like The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.

CLIP FROM THE ADVENTURES OF RIN TIN TIN: What is it Rinty? Okay, I understand. Something’s wrong.

It’s hard to appreciate now what a big star Rin Tin Tin was in his time. He wasn’t the first on-screen superdog, but Rin Tin Tin became a whole franchise. He made more money than his human co-stars. He paved the way for other famous dogs, like Lassie and Benji. And unlike other actors, he was immortal. There have been 12 generations of Rin Tin Tins, with a new German Shepherd always ready to inherit the throne. But Rinty’s pop culture success also helped cement an enduring American cultural archetype: the hero dog.

Hero dogs are just like regular dogs, except they occasionally rescue babies, fight alongside soldiers on the battlefield, and alert clueless humans to imminent danger.

HODA KOTB (TODAY): We’re talking about the hero dogs who save people’s lives, and she’s going to introduce us to several.

RON CLAIBORNE (GOOD MORNING AMERICA): For his heroic actions, Buddy was awarded a silver dog bowl at a ceremony yesterday, and as it turns out, this wasn’t the first time that Buddy had saved his owner.

OPRAH WINFREY: So, what happened next?

SGT. YOUNG: Well, come on out, Target.

OPRAH WINFREY: There is Target, the hero!

HOROWITZ: Do you ever call him Buckety?

ORLEAN: We call him Bucket, Buckles, Buckety.

Buck is a relatively new addition to Susan’s family.

ORLEAN: Like 90 percent of the dogs in America today, he’s a pandemic puppy. He was very different at the kennel where we got him than he was as soon as we got him home.

HOROWITZ: What is his personality?

ORLEAN: He is an optimist. He’s—

HOROWITZ: Unmoved by Corgis barking at him?

ORLEAN: Right. Yeah.


ORLEAN: Hush up there. He really is the most game, cheerful dog that I’ve known. And I’ve had Spaniels for a long time, and they have a sort of soulfulness, and they’re very, very emotional.


ORLEAN: He’s much more the sort of go-getter, kind of spunky, spirited, but also, he’s always happy. I think we’re sort of enjoying an instance of his entrepreneurial spirit, which is: Who knew there was a tennis ball in that hedge? And he found it.

HOROWITZ: And I’ve been also— Somehow he’s had me carrying it for most of this walk, which is pretty—

ORLEAN: We just dropped it. If you want to get it.

HOROWITZ: Oh, look, I’ll get tha,t Buck. I’ll get that for you, Buck.

ORLEAN: Did you train Alexandra to carry your ball?

HOROWITZ: Okay, so he’s optimistic, and I’m trainable. He’s a trainer. But is he a hero? Is he heroic?

ORLEAN: You know, first of all, I think all dogs in their soul have a heroic streak — a selfless gallant spirit. I do. I think—

HOROWITZ: There’s something about dogs in their interaction with us, which is heroic at its core, right? They’ve sacrificed their original life to live with us on our terms, which is fascinating.      

ORLEAN: Yeah, I think that they ultimately have that kind of soul of accommodation and—

HOROWITZ: A nobleness.

ORLEAN: Yeah, and I think that’s part of what is so appealing about them.

HOROWITZ: So, what you’re saying is: he’s that kind of hero, but maybe not the other—

ORLEAN: But is he the other kind of hero? See, he’s very— Honey, are you dropping your ball? You’re still training Alexandra.

HOROWITZ: Yeah, I require regular reinforcement.

ORLEAN: Right. “Here you go. Here’s your ball. Surely you know how to carry this.”

HOROWITZ: You have to give them chances to succeed.

ORLEAN: Yeah. You know, In World War I, they used terriers in the trenches to go after rats. You know, because they were small, but they’re definitely ratters. It’s a different kind of war effort than dogs that were, you know, comforting dying soldiers, but —

HOROWITZ: Essential if you’re living in a trench.

ORLEAN: Oh, absolutely. And they also use terriers to deliver cigarettes, which I think is one of the kind of most—

HOROWITZ: That’s kind of adorable.

ORLEAN: —undervalued piece of the war effort. They would strap little packs— I think because they’re small and energetic, and they can travel. But to me, the most heroic dogs were the ones that were trained to sit with dying soldiers and comfort them. You know, you train a bunch of dogs to go through a battlefield and indicate which soldiers are alive. And those dogs were really important, because you needed medics to get to the soldiers quickly. And if they have to check every single body, it wastes valuable time. So, these dogs were trained to indicate when someone was alive, and the medic could come more quickly. But then they trained other dogs to sit with people who were gravely injured and just comfort them. I almost cried when I first read about them, and thinking how dogs would probably have some instinctive way of knowing what they were doing. I think animals know about death, and they know when another animal is dying, and they seem to respond to that.

HOROWITZ: Right? And they’re certainly dogs who will sort of move away from— Well, I guess for wolves it would have been the pack, but for dogs, it might be their home, their family — when they seem to be anticipating their own death.

ORLEAN: Right. Well actually, that’s the theme of my favorite Rin Tin Tin movie.

HOROWITZ: Which movie is this?

ORLEAN: Clash of the Wolves. He plays a half-wolf/half-dog who is the leader of his pack. He gets into a fight with these evil wolves and he gets injured, and he doesn’t want to stay with his pack because he knows that he’s going to die. And if these—

HOROWITZ: Evil wolves.

ORLEAN: —evil wolves sense that he’s dying, they’ll come and attack the pack.

HOROWITZ: So, that’s heroic.

ORLEAN: He leaves, he abandons his wife and children and— Go get the ball, honey. Get your ball. He abandons his wife and puppies, and goes limping off to die alone because he doesn’t want to attract these evil wolves to his pack and endanger them. And so, this is an interesting kind of demonstration of a dog being heroic to other dogs.

Hero dogs are great fodder for T.V. news and Oprah. But can ordinary dogs actually be heroes? Are dogs intentionally risking their own tails to rescue people in need? Or is the hero dog just a Hollywood fiction, an impossibly high bar set by the likes of Rin Tin Tin? Luckily, I happen to know a guy who conducted an experiment to test this.

Clive WYNNE: I’m Clive Wynne. I’m a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, where I direct the Canine Science Collaboratory.

Clive wanted to test exactly what we’re talking about: whether dogs would act heroically and rescue their owners. Again, just so you’re clear, we’re talking about ordinary pet dogs.

WYNNE: There are, of course, dogs whose profession it is to rescue people. And they do it, you know, from the St. Bernard going through the Alps in Switzerland to whatever else. But they do it because they have received months or years of training. And, in that case, the credit for the ingenuity belongs to the human who devised and carried out the training.

So, the heroism has to come from the dog, and only the dog. Clive got the idea for his experiment when he read about some courageous dogs from World War II.

WYNNE: I was reading this fascinating little book about pets in Britain in the Second World War. It’s called The Great Cat and Dog Massacre. And one of the things I found very fascinating in there was that in the Blitz, when the Germans were bombing London, there were repeated newspaper reports of dogs rescuing people from the rubble of their homes, right? So, the house collapses, the poor person is trapped inside, crying out in distress. The dog, being smaller, has been able to escape. And there were a number of accounts of dogs just digging their people out. And I thought this is very interesting because by, and large, when people tell stories about their dog being heroic — you know, the classic example is from the TV show Lassie.


WYNNE: You know, “What’s that Lassie? Timmy’s fallen down the well?!” And the dog runs home and barks something. And somehow these barks convey— Okay. So, you know the story. And it’s obviously a nonsense, right? I mean, nobody pretends that the stories of Lassie are true stories. We know they’re fiction.

Not only are the stories fiction. The “Lassie telling others that Timmy fell down the well” scene apparently was never even on the show. But this was the kind of “go-alert-a-human” heroism that had been tested in previous studies.

WYNNE: And there were some Canadian researchers who actually did an experiment like that. The human pretended to have a heart attack. And in the other experiment, a bookcase fell on top of the human. And they were not expecting the dog to carry out CPR, nor were they expecting the dog to somehow figure out how to lift this heavy bookcase off the human. The essence of that study was, would the dogs go and seek help from another nearby human being? And the dogs did nothing useful at all. But I thought, “Well, maybe it’s an unfair task.” I mean it’s just not reasonable to think that a dog would comprehend “Human No. 1 is in trouble. Go and communicate with Human No. 2,” when the dog doesn’t have any semantic form of communication it can use. What’s that, “Timmy has fallen down the well”? That’s T.V. land. Whereas this scenario, which was tolerably well documented from 70 years ago, of dogs digging people out of the rubble of their houses, there, what the dogs are doing is clearly within the repertoire of things that we see dogs do. Dogs dig. And we know from all sorts of evidence that dogs care about their people. So maybe this was within the realm that could be a real thing. And so I began to think about: How could we turn this into a scientific study without actually demolishing anybody’s house and doing them any real harm?

And so Clive decided to give dogs a heroic task that they could actually complete: Rescuing their people from a box.

WYNNE: The box was constructed so that it had a front panel that functioned as a door, which looked pretty solid, but was in fact made of expanded polystyrene. So, the gentlest nudge would cause this front panel to fall away. In the experimental condition, the person inside the box cried out, “Help, help me! Help, help me!” repeatedly for two minutes. And we had a sound level meter inside the box to try and instruct the people to keep their shouting at a fairly loud level.

HOROWITZ: Okay, so you’ve sent us some clips from the study, so I thought we could watch it together and maybe you can narrate what’s happening for us.

WYNNE: Sure. So first we’re just seeing the dog getting used to the room because dogs are often a little bit spooked by unfamiliar environments. So, we spend a good bit of time just letting the dog get used to being in this new place with these new objects in it. Okay, so now we have a person in the box and she’s calling out, “Help, help me!”

DOG STUDY CLIP: Help! Help me! Help me! Help!

WYNNE: And we see her dog scurrying around in the room. And we, from video, make notes on how the dog is behaving. And we get a strong sense that these dogs under this condition are infected by their owner’s distress.            


 WYNNE: They show us in a number of ways — whining and so forth — that they are not comfortable with what’s going on. And then: Hooray!


HOROWITZ: So, the dog rescued the owner?

WYNNE: That’s right. We have a rescue.

By the way, the researchers also created control conditions to be sure that when dogs open the box, they’re doing it to save their owners. Of the two control conditions, neither involves an owner calling out for help.

WYNNE: Now this is actually the same person and the same dog, and she is inside there, just reading calmly but fairly loudly from a magazine article we gave her. And we see the dog is much more relaxed.

HOROWITZ: Just wandering around the room instead of running around and whining.

The second control condition tests whether the dog can get into the box at all — if they’re really motivated. And that motivation? A food reward dropped into the box.

WYNNE: So first, we let the dog see what the treats are and taste them.


WYNNE: Now the treat is going to be dropped inside the box where previously the owner had been lying inside.

HOROWITZ: And the dog just sits. So in that first case, we saw a beautiful yellow lab happily wandering into the room and then hearing their person calling out in distress, and seeming to figure out how to rescue her. Is this what all the subjects in your study did?

WYNNE: It would be a nice story, Alexandra, if all of them had just behaved like that one. But in fact, only about one dog in three actually rescued their owner from the box when the owner was in distress.

So, unlike the Canadian research we heard about earlier, some dogs in this study did rescue their owners in distress. But not all of them. Like Clive said, it was about a third of the dogs. Maybe the rest of them just didn’t know how to open the box. That’s a lot to ask of a dog. On the other hand, the dogs who could? They sometimes did it for their owners, and they sometimes also did it to get a treat. Does this all mean these dogs weren’t really acting heroically?

WYNNE: If we want to talk about heroism, we’re talking about the motivation. I think to be a hero, a hero does something for somebody else’s benefit. The possibility exists that the dogs did this not because they were concerned about the welfare of their human, but because their human’s distress upset them, and it makes them feel better that their humans stopped crying. And our experiment is not able to tell us whether the dogs open the box for the benefit of their humans, or for their own benefit. Because in our design, those two things are completely interlocked. People have done more experiments on rats than have been done on dogs. You get two rats who live together in one cage — they’re cage buddies — and you put one of them in a sort of a trap thing that the other rat can open. And he will. The rat will open the cage, the container thing, so that his buddy is free. Hooray! But what you can also do, to get at exactly this question, is: you can design a special kind of trap container thing that the other rat can open it. Okay, he can open it. But once he’s opened it, his buddy and he are not brought together. Rather, his buddy is freed into another space. So, his buddy is free, but they’re not reunited.

HOROWITZ: It sounds like the rats might actually be acting a little bit altruistically to rescue their friends.

WYNNE: Now, Alexandra, if you were trapped, I would rescue you even if we were not brought together, right? Because I would experience empathy with your condition. I would care about you. But do our dogs care about us enough? Would that actually work with dogs? That would be very interesting to see.

After the break, we’ll continue exploring what it means to be a “hero dog” with Clive Wynne, Susan Orlean — and, yes, her friend Buck.

ORLEAN: Oh, no, there goes the ball. Oh, Buck.

And we’ll talk to a human hero who put his own life at risk to save his dog’s.

Richard WILBANKS: You know, I have never wrestled an alligator before. And I hope I never have to wrestle an alligator again.

This is Off Leash, from the Freakonomics Radio Network.

*      *      *

This is Off Leash. I’m Alexandra Horowitz. We’re asking the question “Can dogs truly be heroic?” We just heard from the researcher Clive Wynne, who’s been trying to answer that question. We’ll talk with him again a little later, but let’s return to my walk with the writer Susan Orlean and her dog, Buck, because I want you to hear the fascinating story behind maybe the most famous fictional dog hero.

HOROWITZ: You wrote a book about Rin Tin Tin, wonderfully. In which you say of Rin Tin Tin, “He’s more than a dog, he’s a hero.”

ORLEAN: Mm-hmm.

HOROWITZ: So, was he a hero because of how he acted in films? Because of those types of heroic roles?

ORLEAN: Well, he’s a complex figure. He was a real dog who belonged to a very lost soul, and his initial act of heroism was giving a purpose to Lee Duncan’s life.

Lee Duncan, I should say, was the man who found the original Rin Tin Tin, brought him back to the States, lived with him, and managed his career.

ORLEAN: He was a soldier in World War I, probably had what we now would consider P.T.S.D. He was a young man who had been essentially abandoned as a child, and then reclaimed by his mother, and seemed very lost. And he found this puppy on a battlefield in World War I — abandoned, because all the other dogs in his kennel had been killed by a bomb blast. And he took the puppy. Against regulations, against all logic, against all practicality, kept a puppy while he continued serving as a soldier in World War I, in some of the worst battles in the most contested French countryside— Oh, your ball. Wait, wait, wait, wait, honey. Here, hang on to it. No, I’m not going to hang on to it. If you want it, you hang on to it.

HOROWITZ: You’re not Alexandra.

ORLEAN: Yeah. Teach her. Don’t teach me. I’m untrainable. Lee Duncan’s idea was that this was his good luck charm. And it was! I mean, his entire life changed, obviously. But I think more than just that it brought him money and celebrity, it saved him. I think he was somebody who had a lot of despair.

HOROWITZ: But then Rin Tin Tin, you know, became this movie dog, playing, often, hero.

ORLEAN: Yeah. I mean, that’s the great irony, and the sort of meta-ness, of Rin Tin Tin — that he never was in active service as a war dog. He was a puppy during World War I, and in World War II, he served as a— to help recruit dogs. Oh, no, there goes the ball.

HOROWITZ: It’s in the middle of the street.

ORLEAN: Oh, Buck.

HOROWITZ: He had a moment of, I think, acceptance. We’ll see. We might catch up with it.

ORLEAN: Now he’s in the eight stages of grief.

HOROWITZ: It’s moving quickly through despair—

ORLEAN: Stages of grief for him. No, he sees the ball. He’s not giving up on it. Here. I think it can be saved.

HOROWITZ: I think so.

ORLEAN: I think this ball can be saved.

HOROWITZ: Let’s see. Well, he has his nose down. I just see what he would look like after a rat.

ORLEAN: I would not want to be a rat in his—

HOROWITZ: In his presence.

ORLEAN: No, I think that would be the end of Mr. Rat. Here you go.

HOROWITZ: Well, but one of the Rin Tin— So there were many Rin Tin Tins.

ORLEAN: Well, yes, I mean there was— And this was one of the complexities of writing the book, was trying to make clear that there was an original dog who was the template. And his son followed him. But, as it happened, his son was not a particularly noble dog and—

HOROWITZ: In demeanor?

ORLEAN: He didn’t perform as well. He wasn’t as smart. He was not as good in film. He wasn’t as good-looking. Rin Tin Tin was really beautiful, and so they started finding other German shepherds that were handsome and very trainable, and when they began shooting the television show, which was—

HOROWITZ: In the 50s?

ORLEAN: A lot later, yeah, it was started in the 50s. They used Hollywood dogs to star in the television show. They were no longer part of the original bloodline. And, you know, the setting was completely different. It was now a Western. It was an absolutely different time frame, a different continent. Everything was different. But the mythic quality remained exactly the same. It was the same idea: that this was a dog that was unfailably loyal, strong, brave, moral.

HOROWITZ: Self-sacrificing.

ORLEAN: Self-sacrificing, absolutely. But knew right from wrong, and good from bad, and was always on the right side of an argument. But he was mainly intensely loyal, which I do think is a lot of the nature of our sense of heroism in dogs, is their loyalty, that even in the worst— Now, I’m not going to keep getting that ball. Now we’re all getting the ball, except for the dog. All right. Come on, buddy.

*      *      *

HOROWITZ: Have you ever seen Lassie or Rin Tin Tin or these other movies and shows that have dogs as heroes?

WYNNE: Well, it’s funny you should ask that, Alexandra. Because, to my knowledge, the Lassie T.V. show was never shown in Britain. I knew the original book, published in the 1930s. But that doesn’t have anything to do with all these stories that are in the T.V. show. So I was quite puzzled as to what people were talking about. The original, true Lassie had nothing to do with rescuing people. She rescued herself, but she didn’t rescue anybody else. I mean, a lot of these kinds of stories can be very interesting, because it tells us what people want dogs to be.

HOROWITZ: Do you think, in some way, the role of the dog scientist is becoming a kind of debunker of some of the kind of long-held beliefs and hopes we have for our relationship with dogs?

WYNNE: Well, Alexandra, you know me. So you know that I have a reputation as a debunker, but the earliest writings include mentions of dogs. And so people in the culture at large, they have truths about dogs. And to some degree, those truths come through in fiction. But then I also think that we have delusions about dogs that come from the truth of the strong emotional bond. That kind of loving bond can distort your perceptions of other aspects of your beloved, right?

HOROWITZ: I wonder if you would think that it’s fair, then, with that in mind, to say that dogs who in fact rescue people from rivers or mountaintops — whether knowingly or not — or those who dug their people up out of wartime rubble, or maybe the fictional screen Lassie or Rin Tin Tin — that we could call them heroes, even if we don’t know that they’re acting with intent to be heroes.

WYNNE: Alexandra, what I would say is: If we use the term “heroes” for some people, we can use the term “hero” for at least some dogs. We don’t know every human so-called hero’s deepest motivations. We don’t worry ourselves that deeply about it. And in the same way, when a dog helps somebody under difficult circumstances, yeah, let’s call that dog a hero.

Let’s think about heroic human behavior. What is the hero’s motivation? People, unlike dogs, can tell us. So I was happy to hear from a person who had acted heroically for the sake of his dog.

WILBANKS: My name is Richard Wilbanks, and I live in Estero, Florida. You know, I got Gunner when he was seven weeks old. Gunner is considered to be a Blenheim King Charles Cavalier Spaniel. He’s white and kind of a rust color splotches on his body. Just handsome as he can be. He’s just a wonderful little dog. I mean, he’s just the light of my life. I just think the world of him. And he just loves all the animals in the neighborhood — the dogs and cats, and chases lizards. There is a lake right beside my house. The Florida Wildlife Federation had approached me and asked me if they could put cameras up on my property to monitor the wildlife. And one of them was pointed toward the lake. So the water is only about 20 yards from my back door. And it is a regular walking area for us.

You know, it was a gorgeous Sunday morning here in southwest Florida. And about 10 o’clock I’d fixed me a bloody mary and lit up a cigar. And so, off across the pond we went.

We have a number of alligators in the pond, and usually you can see their eyes sticking up above the water. But the alligator was actually under the water, and I didn’t see it. You know, he just launched out of that water like a rocket. I mean, grabbed Gunner so quick that, I mean, I just froze for a minute. And then, when I saw him swimming away with Gunner, I guess the adrenaline kicked in, and I just jumped in the water. And I mean, I’d had him for a week, and we had already bonded. I didn’t want to lose him. So I just did what I needed to do to save his life. I was about chest-deep when I caught up with the alligator. And I got him by his tail and then wrestled him up to the bank. And I’ll tell you what, getting an alligator’s mouth open? Ooh, that’s one job.

When I got it open, Gunner came out. And my hands were stuck in the alligator’s mouth at that point. So I had to try to work them out. And when I finally got freed, I got the alligator’s mouth shut. He was about a five-foot gator. And I picked him up by his snout and I just did a hammer throw and slug him over the fence to get him away from Gunner and myself, and picked up Gunner and rushed him to the hospital.

He spent a couple of days in the hospital getting I.V. antibiotics to keep him from getting pneumonia. And he was fine. You know, I got the worst of it. I went and got a tetanus shot. And they told me to go get some stitches in my hand. I came home, put super glue in them. So, closed them up and put bandages on them. And I didn’t feel like I could afford a doctor bill and the vet bill I was going to get, so—

As a matter of fact, they had to come and do an investigation because I got bit. And they asked me if I wanted them to remove the alligator. I told him, “No, you know, the alligator was just doing what it does to survive.” I didn’t see a point in destroying it. I’m just glad that things turned out the way they did.

I don’t feel like a hero because of this. You know, our pets become like our children. Most people would go to any length to try to save their pet or their child. I’m just an everyday person that did what I could do.

*      *      *

ORLEAN: Oh, no. All right. This is now a crisis. The ball has gone under a gate that’s locked.

HOROWITZ: Oh, dear. Who’s going to be the hero here, is what I wonder.

ORLEAN: Well, this would involve climbing over a fence.

HOROWITZ: I’m slightly breaking into this house. This gate starts opening. This is just—

ORLEAN: Can you get it?

HOROWITZ: Okay, I got it.

ORLEAN: Oh, my God. Okay, this dog now thinks you are a god. He’s going to start a whole religion based on you.

HOROWITZ: I feel very good for doing that.

ORLEAN: Yeah, no, it’s the new Alexandra religion.

HOROWITZ: And he just left it.

ORLEAN: What? Where’d it go? You’re done? Wow. I think he’s tired.

HOROWITZ: I think we did it. Well, that was a fabulous walk. I kept you past the time I promised, so—

Is it ironic that we’re ending this episode with me performing an admittedly small act of heroism for a dog? After all, we started with the question “Can dogs truly be heroic?” Researchers like Clive have some evidence that, yes, some dogs act in a way that we might describe as heroic. Not that the dogs care whether they’re heroes or not. And the dogs in Clive’s study may have just acted out of pure self-interest. In all events, what is clear is that we humans love the idea of hero dogs. And the genre that Rin Tin Tin popularized doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

I think people love the idea that, somewhere inside our scruffy friends like Susan Orlean’s dog, Buck, there is the potential for canine valor. Sure, Buck may be a little obsessed with a runaway tennis ball today, but somewhere down the road, if Susan found herself in a tight spot? Maybe Buck would bail her out. And that possibility, no matter how rooted in Hollywood fantasy, is something that makes our bonds with the Bucks of the world even stronger.

Thank you to Susan Orlean, Buck, Clive Wynne, Richard Wilbanks, and to you for coming on this walk with us. We’ll be back soon. And in the meantime, be a hero: go for a walk with your dog.

*      *      *

Off Leash is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio, and is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network — which also includes No Stupid Questions, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. This episode was produced by Molly Getman, Lyric Bowditch, Brent Katz, and Joel Meyer — with help from Jared Hohlt, Alison Craiglow, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. It was mixed by Greg Rippin, Jasmin Klinger, and Jeremy Johnston.

Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Zack Lapinski, Ryan Kelley, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Morgan Levey, Julie Kanfer, Emma Tyrrell, Eleanor Osborne, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman. Our music was composed by Luis Guerra.

To see behind-the-mic photos of all the dogs you met in this episode — or to share your thoughts on the show — follow Off Leash on Instagram and Twitter at @OffLeashShow. You can also shoot us an email at To find a transcript, links to research, and a newsletter sign-up, go to As always, thanks for listening.

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Hi! It’s Alexandra again. We loved making these episodes for you and would love to make more. The best way you can help us do that? Tell your friends, family, or even strangers you meet at the dog park about Off Leash. Thanks so much.

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ORLEAN: Oh, goodness. We were not— We were not warmly— We were not warmly greeted by that dog.

HOROWITZ: There were not a lot of dogs on this walk, but some of them were not altogether delighted to see us.

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  • Susan Orlean, staff writer at The New Yorker and bestselling author. 
  • Clive Wynne, professor of psychology and founding director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University.
  • Richard Wilbanks, Florida resident who saved his dog from an alligator attack.



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