It’s a time-honoured tale: the dog – think Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Inspector Rex – alerts humans to danger or trouble with a bark, glance or gesture of the head.
But how realistic is this behaviour, and at what level are dogs motivated by human interests – if at all?
Researchers Patricia Piotti and Juliane Kaminski, psychologists at the University of Portsmouth in the UK, found dogs can have our interests at heart, but perhaps not as a priority over their own.
Their findings were published in the journal PLOS One.
Dogs are the oldest domesticated species, and their ability to communicate with humans is thought to have evolved as a result of breeding for hunting and retrieval skills, which rely on human interaction.
So Piotii and Kaminski set about testing if the needs of a human were enough to drive a dog’s behaviour; in other words, whether dogs are motivated by selfishness.
They focused on actions exhibited by dogs to draw a human’s attention to something such as food.
This is called “showing behaviour”, and may be in the form of a bark, or simply moving their eyes from a human to a target – the food – and back again.
“Communicating with a helpful motive is particularly interesting because it might suggest that dogs understand the human’s goals and need for information,” the researchers write.
For the study, a group of dogs were shown two hiding places: one that housed a dog toy, and one that housed either an object relevant to a human – a notepad the human had shown interest in – or an arbitrary object of no significance, a stapler.
“It was hypothesised that abandoning the dog toy in favour of indicating the relevant object suggested a motivation to help,” the paper reads.
But the dogs indicated towards the toy more often than the notepad or stapler.
This implies that dogs are more concerned with their own interests – locating the dog toy – than the interests of humans – locating the notepad. But this isn’t the end of the story.
When the notepad was hidden, rather than the stapler, dogs persisted in their “showing behaviour” for longer – suggesting they were more concerned with getting the human’s attention.
“One possible explanation is that dogs were able to recognise the objects’ relevance based on the demonstration that they witnessed and that they took that into account when communicating with the experimenter,” the paper explains.
“Such behaviour would be consistent with the definition of ‘informative communication’, and comparable to the behaviour of children in similar studies.”
The researchers identify the need for further study, but the possibility of this level of care from our doggy friends is, let’s be honest, nothing to sniff at.
Amy Middleton is a Melbourne-based journalist.
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