You do so much for your dog – from walks, to meals, to games of fetch. And your dog pays you back in their own canine way. For example, they bark to protect you and comfort you when you’re down. But would your dog do that for just about anybody or do all your efforts earn you those rewards in return? In other words, if your dog could give a treat to you or an unhelpful stranger, who do you think they would choose? Recent research from the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, found that dogs are no more inclined to provide food to a helpful human than an unhelpful one.
What is Reciprocity?
Cooperation involves a situation where two people, or animals, work together toward a goal. Our pet dogs cooperate with us all the time. And working dogs certainly cooperate with their handlers. But reciprocity is a specific type of cooperation where one participant makes their help conditional on receiving similar help from the other participant. It’s the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” arrangement.
Chances are you would rather share your lunch with somebody who offers you their desert than with a person who doesn’t return the favor. And you would probably prefer to sit with that person too. But what about dogs? No doubt you scratch your dog’s back both literally and metaphorically. Does that make them more likely to cooperate with you than with people who don’t help them? And would they prefer to spend time with helpful people over unhelpful ones?
Building Blocks of Reciprocity
Dogs are excellent candidates for showing reciprocity with humans. First, they have the building blocks of the behavior – helping others and the ability to discriminate between the helpful and unhelpful. Previous research has shown dogs will help other dogs. For example, they will pull a tray of food toward another dog or choose to provide another dog with a reward. Plus, dogs can tell an unhelpful dog from a helpful one. They can also do the same with humans, recognizing the difference between a person who cooperates with them and one who doesn’t. They even prefer to spend time with cooperative people.
Second, dogs have a special relationship with humans. They form strong bonds with us, they can read our emotions and body language, and they cooperate with us regularly for nothing more than a cuddle or cookie. In fact, in several experiments dogs have rescued their owner from inside a box when their owner seemed distressed. No other animal shares quite that tight a relationship with us. That makes dogs far more likely to reciprocate with our species than say a chicken or bear.
Finally, dogs show reciprocity with other dogs. For example, when military dogs had a chance to pull a tray of food into another dog’s reach or press a lever to open a box containing food in another dog’s enclosure, they were far more likely to perform the helping behavior when the dog they were partnered with had previously done the same for them.
Testing the Dogs
Given the previous research, dog scientist Jim McGetrick and his team fully expected the dogs in their study to show reciprocity with humans. They set up an experiment where humans pushed a button that either delivered kibble or didn’t. The “helpful humans” pushed the button and delivered food, whereas the “unhelpful humans” pushed the button but no food arrived. The dogs were then given the chance to push the button to deliver chocolate to the humans. The scientists measured whether the dogs delivered more chocolate to the helpful humans than the unhelpful ones. Finally, they allowed the dogs to wander the test area to see whether they spent more time near the helpful humans or the unhelpful ones.
© 2021 McGetrick et al
Despite the researchers’ reasonable expectations, the dogs didn’t distinguish between the helpful and unhelpful humans. They neither delivered more food to the helpful humans, nor spent more time near them. They showed no signs of reciprocity. Why did the dogs fail to behave with a human partner the way they do with other dogs? Are they only able to reciprocate help with members of their own species?
As explained in the paper, it could simply be the experimental design. Perhaps the task was too abstract for the dogs to understand the connection between button pressing and food delivery. Maybe they didn’t realize it was the human providing the kibble and not the dispenser itself. Or maybe the use of food was the wrong currency. Humans are always on the dispensing side of the food equation with dogs. Dogs never need to feed their owners, so this might have been too unnatural to make sense to them. After all, when you give your dog a treat, do they look at you as if to say, “Wanna share?”
It could also be that dogs simply don’t use this strategy with human partners. It might be too sophisticated for them. To dig deeper into these results, McGetrick and his team are repeating the same experiment, but this time they will partner the dogs with other dogs rather than humans. The scientists hope to determine if the experimental setup is the issue or if dogs truly behave differently depending on the species of their partner. It will be fascinating to see how much kibble the dogs deliver to each other and what that can tell us about the depth and richness of dog-human interactions.