If you give a dog food, it isn’t necessarily going to return the favour, according to a new study, published in PLOS ONE.
Previous studies have showed that dogs are capable of helping each other out – a trait called reciprocal altruism – but the researchers, led by Jim McGetrick from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, found that dogs didn’t extend this courtesy to humans who helped them get food.
“We found that dogs would not provide food to a human (using a food dispenser) regardless of whether that human had been helpful (i.e. provided food to the dog) or unhelpful (i.e. did not provide food to the dog),” says McGetrick.
“Thus, dogs do not seem to reciprocate the receipt of food from unfamiliar humans.”
In the experiment, the team trained 37 dogs to use a button-operated food dispenser. They then put the button in a different enclosure with a human.
For each dog, one human pressed the button to help the dog get food, and another didn’t. Both humans were unfamiliar to the dog.
The buttons were then swapped around to see if the dogs would press the button to give food to the helpful or unhelpful human, but the researchers found that the dogs didn’t show a significant tendency to reciprocate helpful behaviour.
“We also found that the amount of time dogs spent in proximity to the humans (helpful or unhelpful), and the amount of time it took the dogs to approach the two humans, did not differ,” says McGetrick.
“Therefore, it seems the dogs did not differentiate between the two humans based on whether they had been cooperative (i.e. provided food) or uncooperative (i.e. did not provide food).”
Based on their results, human-dog relationships may be different to dog-dog relationships.
McGetrick says: “This study points towards a few possible aspects of the dog-human relationship: (1) dog-human cooperation and interactions may not be based on reciprocal cooperation, (2) providing food to humans, even in an experimental context, is not something that dogs seem to do; it could be that dogs do not take humans’ desire to eat, or enjoyment of food, into account when making decisions, and (3) if you are going to perform a nice deed for a dog, make sure they are paying attention, but you are not guaranteed they will do something nice in return.”
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
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