By Linda Cole
Scientific research on our canine friends continues to show how amazing dogs are. A first of its kind study has found that dogs have a “prosocial” behavior which was thought to be unique in humans and primates. Dogs are certainly more empathetic and smarter than they’re given credit for, and according to new research, they also have a genuine concern for the welfare of their friends.
Two aspects that set human beings apart from other species is our ability to work together in cooperation, and offer positive support and kindness to someone even though there isn’t a personal benefit. This is called prosocial behavior. Lending a helping hand to someone and not expecting anything in return is something most people are willing to do, especially for someone close to them.
Cooperation and social interactions with their own kind are innate in both dogs and wolves. A family unit of wolves will work together to find food, care for their young and support one another. Dogs are also social creatures and capable of cooperating with each other and their human family. Because both species exhibit these behaviors, it’s been assumed they also are capable of prosocial behavior. However, until recently the behavior was never investigated by researchers.
Scientists from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna were curious to see if dogs understand the concept of giving, and their findings point to the ability of dogs to demonstrate prosocial behavior among their own kind.
Researchers wanted to remove the influence of humans as much as they could. Because dogs are social, it isn’t easy to measure if an act is prosocial or simply the dog reacting to unintended human cues. So before beginning their experiments, the researchers spent several weeks training 16 dogs to pull a string with their mouth. The string was attached to a tray-pulling system. When the canines were comfortable with the system and understood how it worked, testing began.
For the tests, a pair of dogs was split up and placed in two cages side by side. One was a donor dog who operated the tray-pulling system that would deliver one of two trays to the other canine. He alone decided which one of the trays his partner, the receiver dog, would get. One tray contained a treat and the other one was empty. The donor dogs understood that if they pulled the string to the tray that delivered a treat to the receiver dogs, they would get nothing themselves. To make sure the donor dogs weren’t just randomly pulling the string for fun, scientists put in a control. They were certain the donor dogs understood what the string did because at the end of each series of tests the canines were given the opportunity to treat themselves, which they happily did. The control also showed that the dogs didn’t pull on the tray because they were fearful or distracted by the unfamiliar canines. There were rare interactions between the donor dogs and unfamiliar dogs.
Researchers were surprised to find that dogs do show prosocial behavior with other canines, but what’s even more interesting is that dogs also demonstrate preferential treatment. When the donor dog was familiar with the other dog, he was more willing to be generous and give him the tray with a treat. An unfamiliar canine usually got the empty tray.
Results from this study show that canine friends look out for each other similarly to the way we behave towards people we know. We are typically more apt to be helpful and show kindness to people familiar to us rather than strangers.
Why dogs behave in a similar way is something researchers still can’t answer. The question is: do canines exhibit prosocial behavior as a result of domestication, their ability to react to a situation based on prior experiences, or a behavior that has been shaped by a reliance of cooperation? Hopefully the answer will come with more research.
So it appears that dogs not only extend their devotion and loyalty to us, but to their canine friends as well. Our four legged pals are willing to share with each other even if it doesn’t benefit them. When it comes to sharing with friends, dogs do understand the concept of giving. This is one more study that helps us realize how remarkable dogs are. One has to wonder what else researchers will uncover in the future. Until then, reward your pup with some CANIDAE treats to show him how much you appreciate who he is as a unique individual.
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