A scientific study published in Nature concludes dogs will share treats with other dogs, even if it means giving up their own goodies. Austrian researchers evaluated “prosocial” behaviors of dogs and found, to their surprise, that dogs offered goodwill gestures toward other dogs, especially if it was a familiar pooch. This study will help veterinarians and pet parents better understand canine behavior and makes me wonder how much my own two dogs really like each other.

Do dogs have friends?

Dogs are incredibly social. They seem to enjoy going for walks, lounging on the couch and sharing meals with both humans and each other. Many scientists postulated these interactions were primarily driven by the canine instinct to procure food. In other words, most experts say your dog hangs out with you in hopes of scoring a treat.

What made this study unique and worthy of publication in Nature was it asked what happened if the dog didn’t get a treat in return? Would a dog give another dog a goodie out of the kindness of their heart? The answer will be debated on couches and around food bowls for years.

The study

The study was elegantly designed. One dog, the donor, was placed in an enclosure with two strings. In an adjacent enclosure, a second dog entered. By pulling on one of the strings, the donor dog could either offer an empty tray or a delicious dog treat to the second dog. Regardless of action, the string-puller didn’t receive any food or reward. In simpler terms, a dog could decide whether or not to give another a treat. What would they do?

Through a series of these experiments, the scientists concluded that dogs more readily donated food to a dog they knew over a stranger. In fact, it was common for dogs to ignore a dog they didn’t know while happily bestowing treats on a friend. When a dog was given the chance to give himself a treat instead of another dog, well, you know how that ends. I’m not certain, but I’m pretty sure one of the scientists put the odds at 110% a dog would eat the biscuit instead of giving it away. I say closer to 120%.

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What we learned from this study

The real benefit of this study is to better understand how dogs think and behave. Prosocial behavior is common among humans and primates but hadn’t been demonstrated in dogs until now. The fact that dogs have “friends” and are willing to reward them despite receiving nothing themselves will comfort dog lovers and provides valuable insight into how we can better care for them.

For me, having two or more dogs in a home makes even more sense after this study. It also indicates we likely domesticated dogs based on these prosocial traits and it may help explain why dogs seem so eager to help humans, even if it means risking injury.

Dogs are amazing beings we’re lucky to have in our lives. Scientific studies such as this one reinforce the appreciation, respect and love I have for all animals. Now about that sharing study in cats…

Jan 15, 2016

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