Human beings are very capable of cooperation with others, even if there’s nothing in it for them. Demonstrations of kindness are also shown by our primate relatives. We also like to think that our dogs have the same capacity for prosocial actions - actions that helps others with no personal benefit. Until recently, prosocial behavior in other species has only been explored in rats and jackdaws; however, two studies conducted by scientists in Austria and the United States suggest that dogs are indeed capable of this type of behavior.
The first study, conducted at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, involved sixteen dogs. They were placed in a cage that had two levers. If one lever was pulled, the dog in the adjacent cage was presented with an empty tray. The second lever delivered a tray of treats to the dog next door. Dogs would choose the lever that delivered treats to their neighbor, but were more likely to do it when they had a familiar dog in the cage next door. They were more reserved with dogs they didn’t know. After each testing session, the researchers allowed the donor dogs to pull on a lever that gave them a tray containing treats, and they all did so. This showed that the dogs knew what they were doing when they pulled the lever; they weren’t just doing it out of curiosity or fun.
The second study, which was the basis of a thesis by a student from Yale University, evaluated sixty dogs of mixed ages, breeds, and gender and looked at their prosocial behavior towards people. Dogs were able to watch either their pet parent or a total stranger read a book. A thief then came along and took the book out of the room without the reader noticing. The dogs then had the opportunity to approach the door to try to get the book back. Every dog tested approached the door when their pet parent’s book was taken. Only some dogs went after the book taken from a stranger. Furthermore, the dogs were quicker to approach the door to retrieve their pet parent’s book than the stranger’s book. As a control, dogs were allowed to watch a stranger read a book then leave the room with their book. Few dogs followed and those that did took much longer to do so.
Can we encourage selfless behavior in our pet dogs? Both of these studies indicate that dogs are more likely to behave favorably towards others if they’re familiar with the person or dog involved. A more generous approach could be encouraged in your pup by encouraging them to become friends with many other dogs and people.
Prosocial behaviors were initially only associated with primates and human beings, but these studies suggest that dogs have a greater understanding of societal interactions than previously thought. We hope that the results will encourage further studies into whether prosocial behavior is something that dogs have learned from watching us, or if it’s innate. This will lead us to a greater understanding of how our canine family members think.