Animal Kingdom: Dogs Give Their Friends Food

First Posted: Dec 16, 2015 11:44 AM EST

Oftentimes, in the animal kingdom, it's everyone for themselves. Yet a new study questions whether prosocial behaviors--those in which individuals help each other while realizing there is no direct personal benefit--may occur 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. Additionally, over thousands of years of domestication, dogs were selected for special social skills," said Friederike Range of the Messerli Research Institute, in a news release

During the study, researchers examined 16 dogs in order to test their readiness to benefit familiar versus unfamiliar partners.

Researchers used a bar-pulling task to examine potential prosocial-behaviors in the dogs, in which they had to pull trays and decide whether a second dog would receive a treat or not. The donor dogs used their mouths to pull a string to bring a tray toward a second dog, in which they could either chose an empty tray or a tray that contained a treat on the partner's side.

Researchers found that the donor dogs pulled the giving tray more when they knew the dogs as opposed to with unfamiliar counterparts. 

With the bar-pulling task, the donor dog determined whether another dog would get the treat or not. The donor dog by itself, however, did not get the treat. The only purpose of the task was to benefit the other dog. In conducting several control tests, researchers excluded the possibility that the dogs were simply pulling the trays for the fun of it. Donor dogs were reserved in pulling the tray when an unfamiliar dog was in the next enclosure.

At the end of each test run, the researchers conducted another test to show that the donor dogs knew what pulling the tray meant--allowing them to pull on a tray to give themselves a treat, and all dogs did just that. "This control excludes the possibility that the dogs did not pull on the tray out of fear of the unfamiliar dogs. Given the same situation, the dogs gladly gave themselves a treat," added Range. "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." 

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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