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Prosociality in Canines

Dogs may show co-species cooperation in a similar way as humans and primates.
By JoAnna Lou, January 2016, Updated June 2021
Many scientists consider cooperation to be a unique aspect of human cognition and culture. Voluntary actions that benefit others, also known as prosocial behavior, had only been previously observed in humans and primates. But new research suggests that canines are also capable of prosocial behavior.

Researchers at the University of Vienna were interested in studying prosociality and dogs because of their high level of sociability and the presence of cooperative behaviors in puppy rearing, joint territorial defense, and group hunting. Also, since domestic dogs have been selected for social skills, that could also make them more likely to show pro-social behaviors.

In this study, dogs had the choice to pull one of two levers. One delivered a tray of food to a second dog and the other delivered an empty tray. The experiment was run with both strange and familiar pups (from the same household). As a control, the researchers also performed the test where the the receiver dogs were too far away to actually access the food or the receiver enclosure was empty.

The scientists found that the dogs were more likely to pull the lever for the food tray when they were paired with a familiar receiver. The dogs pulled the lever less when the receivers were too far away to access the food and they hardly ever pulled the empty tray.

According to lead researcher Friederike Ranger, this prosociality between dogs has never been experimentally demonstrated before. The team was most interested in how the degree of familiarity among the dogs influenced the behavior.

I'm curious to know how my dogs would respond to this experiment. If it were a decision between giving a treat or getting a treat, I know they would be much more selfish! What do you think your pups would do?

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.