Science News

Researchers Document Generosity And Prosocial Behavior In Dogs

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In a remarkable study out of Austria which analyzed the extent of cooperative behavior in animals, dogs were found to voluntarily offer food to other dogs, demonstrating an amazing understanding in canines of the concept of giving.

This type of prosocial behavior is rare, but not unheard of. It has been found in other animals related to humans, and on at least one occasion, prosocial behavior was recorded when dogs interacted with humans. In that instance, however, it was unclear if the dogs were demonstrating generosity on their own, or submissively giving as a sign of obedience.

To truly find out if our canine friends were capable of exhibiting prosocial behavior, researchers took humans out of the equation and set up two animals in cages aligned side by side. One of the dogs — the donor dog — was given the ability to give food to the second dog by using its mouth to yank on a string. In doing so, the second dog would receive a treat — but only if the donor dog allowed it.

Interestingly, whether the two dogs knew each other influenced the donor dog’s decision. In a display of critical thinking much like humans who are more compassionate to those they are familiar with, some of the dogs were hesitant to provide treats if they didn’t know the recipient. However, the donor dogs were found to be much more willing to provide the second dog a treat if they had interacted before.

Dr. Friederike Range of the Messerli Research Institute explained how another potential variable was taken out of the equation: whether or not dogs were simply distracted by unfamiliar dogs during the experiment.

We were also able to disprove the argument that the dogs pulled the string less frequently because they were distracted by the unfamiliar partner during the test. Only rarely did a donor dog interact with the unfamiliar dog.

To make sure the dogs understood what pulling the string meant for the other dog, researchers set up a control group in which the dogs were allowed to pull the string to give themselves a treat. All of the dogs in this group gave themselves one.

The experiment, which is published in Scientific Reports, is the first to prove that dogs behave prosocially with one another.

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