In a study called “Third-party social evaluations of humans by monkeys and dogs” scientists evaluated capuchin monkeys and domestic dogs to investigate their responses to people after watching them interact with other people. Specifically, researchers studied their evaluations of people who were either helpful or who refused to help another person. There’s an entire behavioral area of research involving what are called “third-party social evaluations” which simply means the study of how individuals respond to people after watching them interact with others.
In the experiment with dogs, the person pretending (for the sake of science) to be in need of help was the dog’s guardian. The dog watched as the guardian spent about 10 seconds attempting to open a clear container holding a roll of tape. In the “helper” situation, the guardian then turned to one of the people on either side of him/her and held out the container. The helper held the container so that the guardian could open it. The guardian removed the roll of tape, showed it the dog, put in back in and replaced the lid. In the “non-helper” condition, the person who the guardian turned to for help responded to the non-verbal request for assistance by turning away, at which point the guardian continued with the unsuccessful attempts to open it. In both cases, there was a person on the guardian’s other side, who was not asked for help.
At the end of this role-playing situation, both the person who was asked for help and the other person next to the guardian offered the dog treats. When the person had helped the guardian open the container, dogs were equally likely to take the treat from either person. However, when there was a refusal to help, dogs were more likely to choose the treat held by the person who was not asked for help. Dogs chose to avoid taking treats from people who were not helpful. This study found similar results in capuchin monkeys, and the same pattern is well known to occur in children.
It is interesting that dogs act as though they assume that people are okay and trust them—until they have evidence to the contrary. In this study, they gave people the benefit of the doubt, reacting just as well to people who were never asked for help as to those who did provide help. Once they observed someone refuse to help their guardian, though, they avoided taking treats from them. This matches the experience many of us have with dogs in that behaviorally healthy, well-socialized dogs seem to like and trust people in general. It as though dogs pursue a “trust unless specific information advises me to do otherwise” strategy regarding social interactions.