Dogs are highly social beings who express their social nature in a variety of ways. They desire companionship with others and readily integrate into our human families and lives. Most of our dogs love to play and to learn new things and enjoy spending time together going for walks, a ride in the car or simply hanging out for a cuddle on the couch. Given the choice, most dogs prefer to share their days with their human family rather than alone and many also have strong social relationships (friendships) with other dogs or even with members of other species.
Although not yet studied thoroughly, dogs may also exhibit certain types of “prosocial” behavior. These are spontaneous actions that are intended to help another individual in some way, usually with no obvious benefit to the helper. Psychologists have defined four general categories of prosocial behavior. These are comforting, sharing, informing and helping. At least anecdotally, comforting is something that dogs seem to excel at. Many dog owners relate that their dog is very empathic, seems to know when they are sad or are having a bad day, and often stays close at hand to provide comfort and love. Behaviors related to sharing may be less common, but certainly many of us have known a dog or two who readily shares his toys, bed or food with others.
What about the most complex prosocial behavior – Helping? There is no doubt that dogs can be successfully trained to help humans. Examples abound and include dogs who aid the disabled, move or protect livestock, find illicit contraband, and perform in search and rescue operations. The number and variety of trained skills that dogs use to help us are both vast and impressive. However, prosocial helping is a bit different because this type of aid occurs spontaneously with little or no former training. Prosocial helping behavior is intrinsically (internally) motivated by empathy or a sense of community and occurs without an obvious or anticipated reward to the performer.
For dogs, this form of helping is considered to be a relatively complex social behavior because it requires two things. First, the dog must understand the goal of the person who is in need. Second, the dog must be motivated to help the person to achieve that goal. For example, in the case of helping a person to find something, the dog has to understand that something is hidden/lost and that the owner is searching for it (and wants it) and must also have a desire (i.e. be motivated ) to help the person to find the object. It is this second component of helping, the intrinsic or internal motivation to help others, that a group of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany recently studied. They asked the question: “Are dogs inclined to lend a helping paw?
The Study: The researchers conducted a series of four experiments to determine whether dogs would come to the aid of a person who was attempting to enter another room to retrieve a set of keys. The same scenario was used in each experiment, but the identity of the person and the way in which the person communicated his goal to the dog were varied.
- Door opening behavior: Prior to the start of the experiments, dogs were trained to open a plexiglass door that entered into a small room (i.e. the target room) by hitting a button that was positioned on the ground in front of the door. Dogs and people could easily see into the target room. The dogs were trained to hit the button and open the door via shaping and positive reinforcement (food treats). This training took place several days prior to the actual experiment and only dogs who successfully learned to hit the button were included in the experiment. The behavior used for opening the door was purposely trained without a cue, to ensure that the dogs learned how to open the door but were not trained to respond to a specific command to do so.
- Experimental conditions: During each experiment, a researcher or the dog’s owner communicated to the dog their desire to enter the target room by one of several means. These included either pushing on the door, reaching for the door, pointing at the button, using gaze (either into the room alone or alternating between the room and the dog), talking (general terms), commanding the dog, or a combination of spontaneous (natural) communicative gestures. In all conditions, the goal that the owner or experimenter was attempting to communicate to the dog was that they needed to enter the target room to retrieve the keys that were on the floor. (Note: Keys were purposely used as an object that would have no or little value to the dogs, thus ensuring that their inclination to help was not motivated by a desire to retrieve a toy or to obtain food). In each experiment, the control was a person who sat near the dog but did not communicate a desire to enter the target room.
Results: Dogs were highly likely to help in two primary conditions. These were either when the person used pointing gestures that were directed toward the button that opened the door or when the person used a variety of “natural” communication gestures simultaneously such as gesturing, talking, gazing and pointing to express their goal. Interestingly, the person’s identity did not influence the dog’s response. Dogs were as likely to help a stranger as they were to help their owner. The researchers concluded that the dogs in this study were highly motivated to help a human when the person’s goal was clearly communicated using either a common communication signal (pointing) or a variety of naturally selected gestures in combination. They suggested that an absence of helping behavior in dogs may be more likely occur when dogs do not understand the person’s goal, rather than due to the lack of an intrinsic desire to be of aid.
Take Away for Dog Folks:
- It’s all about communication: The results of this study emphasize some important issues about how we communicate with dogs. When isolated gestures or verbal commands were used to attempt to communicate the person’s goals, dogs did not perform well. Give this a try and see how unnatural it feels. Point or gaze at something near your dog but do not use any additional words, body language or gaze. Does your dog respond? (Mine did not – they just looked at me like I was a crazy person). Conversely, when owners were instructed to just “communicate naturally” with their dog using a myriad of signals, the dogs’ understanding and success increased dramatically. While this difference is not all that surprising, it is important information for trainers and owners to keep in mind. Simply issuing a command or gesturing stiffly won’t cut the mustard with most dogs. Similar to communicating with the humans in our lives, effective communication with dogs includes a variety of simultaneously delivered verbal and non-verbal signals – signals that can be messy and complex and difficult to define, but ultimately that are most successful at getting the message across.
- Imperative versus informative gestures: Researchers who study dog cognition are interested in whether dogs are capable of understanding human communicative gestures as being informative (i.e. providing helpful information) rather than interpreting them only as imperative (i.e. as a command to do something). This is an important distinction because while it is well-known that dogs can be trained to perform quite complex tasks and respond to trained cues, there is not that much scientific evidence showing us that dogs regularly use human behavior as information (although anecdotal evidence of this certainly abounds). The results of this study, and a few others before it, suggest that dogs are capable of perceiving certain human gestures, such as pointing and gazing, as information and that they may subsequently use that information to act (and help).
- Empathy – Yep, they got it. There is no doubt that dogs are of great help to us, in a myriad of ways. We train dogs to aid the disabled, protect us, find lost children, and comfort the ill. However, that type of helping (while noteworthy and admirable in its own right) differs qualitatively from spontaneous helping in which the dog perceives a need and, presumably motivated by empathy, reacts by providing aid. It is this latter form of helping that was tested in this study. The cleverly designed set of experiments showed that when the goal of the person was clearly communicated to the dogs, many immediately helped the experimenter – and did so even when there was no obvious reward available to them. While all dog lovers know in our heart of hearts that our dogs express love, concern, and even compassion for others, here is some science showing us that contrary to the beliefs of an ever declining few, humans do not have a corner on the empathy market. Once understanding is achieved, our dogs are willing to help us – even with something as mundane as helping someone to enter a room to retrieve some keys! (Just think about what they may be capable of when we really need their help). Have some fun – Test your own dog and find out if he is willing to lend you a helping paw!
Reference: Brauer J, Schonefeld K, Call J. When do dogs help humans? Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2013;148:138-149.