Study Shows Dogs Exhibit Human-Like Altruism, Especially For Their Friends

“Good dog” is getting a whole new meaning.
Two dogs are seen during a behavioral experiment in Vienna. A donor dog, right, is able to choose whether the dog on the left
Two dogs are seen during a behavioral experiment in Vienna. A donor dog, right, is able to choose whether the dog on the left will receive a treat.

A pawsitively endearing behavioral study on dogs has discovered our four-legged friends exhibit human-like levels of empathy and giving toward each other -- but with special preference for ones they know.

Man's best friend exhibits an altruistic trait that’s commonly seen in humans and apes called prosocial behavior, according to a study published Wednesday in Nature Publishing Group that researchers say is the first of its kind.

Ethologists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna studied dogs’ readiness to help dogs that were both familiar and unfamiliar to them. They divided 16 animals into pairs and designated one dog in each duo as the “donor dog.” 

"In the test, the donor dogs used their mouths to pull a string to bring a tray toward a second dog. They could choose either an empty tray or a tray containing a treat on the partner's side," the study’s lead researcher, Friederike Range of the Messerli Research Institute, said Wednesday in a press release.

What researchers found was that donor dogs were typically willing to throw their counterpart a bone (figuratively and literally), especially if the two dogs already knew each other. Donor dogs that didn’t already know their partners, however, were less inclined.

"Prosocial behavior was exhibited less frequently toward unfamiliar dogs than toward familiar ones," Range said.

Researchers don't think the unfamiliar dog distracting the donor dog played a role in the latter dog's judgment, Range said.

"Only rarely did a donor dog interact with the unfamiliar dog," he explained.

The dogs seemed to understand which string would do what, as the dogs were given the option to feed themselves at the end of each series of tests and generally chose the string attached to the treat. 

People have long wondered whether the good-natured attitude of most dogs is inherent or if it has developed after years of humans domesticating them, and Range's research provides some insight into this question. 

"Dogs and their nearest relatives, the wolves, exhibit social and cooperative behavior, so there are grounds to assume that these animals also behave prosocially toward conspecifics," Range said. 

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