Sharing and other voluntary acts of kindness are what we regard as part of our humanity – but this type of behavior exists in other creatures as well. Now, scientists working in Austria have shown for the first time that dogs exhibit prosocial behavior, if they know the other dogs.
Different types of personality have already been proven in the animal kingdom, and cooperation is already established in a number of species. Even prosocial behaviors, helping others without any personal benefit, has been observed in a number of species, especially primates; however, until now, this hasn’t been demonstrated in dogs.
“Dogs and their nearest relatives, the wolves, exhibit social and cooperative behaviour, so there are grounds to assume that these animals also behave prosocially toward conspecifics,” said Friederike Range, an ethnologist at the Messerli Research Institute. “Additionally, over thousands of years of domestication, dogs were selected for special social skills.”
Of course, measuring this isn’t easy at all. For this task, researchers used a bar-pulling task, which had the dogs pulling trays and deciding whether a second dog would receive a treat or not. The donor dogs used their mouths to pull a string to bring a tray forward to the second dog – choosing either an empty tray or a tray with a treat.
After conducting a few test runs, researchers ruled out the possibility that dogs were only pulling the tray for the fun of it, and went to the actual tests. They found that whether or not the dogs knew the other dogs made a big difference, as they were much more inclined to help their friends.
“Dogs truly behave prosocially toward other dogs. That had never been experimentally demonstrated before,” said Range. “What we also found was that the degree of familiarity among the dogs further influenced this behaviour. Prosocial behaviour was exhibited less frequently toward unfamiliar dogs than toward familiar ones.”
After each run, the scientists conducted another verification mechanism, to ensure that the dogs knew what they were doing: they gave the dogs the possibility of pulling a tray with a treat for themselves and they did so every single time. So this shows not only that dogs understand what they were doing, but that they want to help their friends more than they want to help strangers.
“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,” Range explains.
The findings are reported in Scientific Reports, but I’m really curious to find out more about dog cooperation. Does this also apply to humans? Would dogs be willing to help others even if they lose out on something? So many questions, so many treats to be eaten.