top of page

Dogs Recognize Generous vs Selfish People

The next time you wave off a request from a friend or family member for the last cookie on the plate and decide to eat it yourself, you should check to see if your dog is watching. Your actions may well affect your dog's opinion of you and your personality, at least as far as generosity and selfishness are concerned. We have been learning a lot about how dogs respond to social situations and read social information from the people and dogs around them. Some of that recent information has come from the laboratory of Sarah Marshall-Pescini of the University of Milan in Italy. The picture is shaping up to indicate that dogs respond to the social activity around them in much the same way that human toddlers do. For example, we now know that dogs sulk when they feel that they are being treated unfairly, and dogs are also less apt to misbehave in situations where they feel that they are being watched. Recent studies on humans have shown that children around the age of one year are already making decisions about whether particular people in their world are apt to behave helpfully or not, and the Milan lab is now offering data suggesting that dogs are reacting in much the same way.

The study conducted by Marshall-Pescini and her team looked at whether dogs would make a decision as to whether a person was selfish or generous based on their observations of how those people acted around other individuals. The research involved 84 dogs, each tested separately under a variety of different conditions.

The basic situation was really quite simple. A dog's owner was ushered into small bare room containing three chairs. The dog was given a chance to sniff around a bit, and then the dog's owner sat down in the chair in the middle of the back wall with the dog on leash beside her. Two people then entered the room, each carrying a bowl containing delicious, savory smelling, sausage bits. Each showed the bowl to the dog so he knew the treats were in there, and then these two individuals sat in chairs against opposite walls.

Now enter the beggar—actually a female associate of the researcher. This individual then approached each of the people with the bowls of treats. One of these people acted in this selfish manner. When approached she sharply said "No!", and then gave a dismissive wave of her hand. The other one, when approached by the beggar, responded with a friendlier voice, and then placed a bit of treat in the beggar's mouth. This interaction was repeated once more, and all the while the individuals with the bowl continued to eat bits of treat while the dog watched. In the end, the person playing the beggar left the room.

The testing procedure was very simple. The dog's owner unclipped the leash and allowed the dog to do whatever it wanted. In more than two thirds of the cases the dogs approached the individual who had been generous to the beggar and tried to solicit a treat from them. Apparently the dog’s eavesdropping on this social interaction had led them to the conclusion that one of these two individuals was more generous and more likely to respond to their entreaties.

Marshall-Pescini tried to tease apart what it was about the interaction that the dog was observing which was most important. First of all the dog actually had to see someone who was granted a treat or refused one. When the individuals carrying the bowls went through the same actions, only pretending to give or refuse to treat to an individual who was not there (perhaps to an invisible ghost?), the dogs formed no preference for either person. Furthermore, if instead of using both their voice and the gesture when granting or denying the treat, the people with the bowls used only one, it turns out that the voice tone was more important than the hand signal to the dog.

The researchers concluded that dogs are watching our social interactions and drawing conclusions about our personalities and our future behavioral predispositions based on what they see and hear. This is much the same way that people behave in social situations. If you see someone who is acting in a pleasant and helpful manner you are more apt to approach that individual then you would a person who is acting in a hostile and rejecting manner.

When I first saw the results of this study I accepted the simple and straightforward conclusions that were drawn from it. However, as often happens, the scientific and analytic portion of my mind would not let things go. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that this study showed something more important than the fact that dogs recognize generosity and selfishness in humans. The really important thing is that the dogs approached the humans as if they expected to be treated by us in the same way that we treat other people. What this means is that the dogs are either making the presumption that in many ways they are equivalent to human beings living in our social world, or we humans are equivalent to other dogs in the makeup of this mixed species pack that they live in. Thus while we scientists are always warning people not to think of our dogs as if they were little people in fur coats, dogs may well think of people as relatively hairless canines that walk on two feet, at least as far as social interactions are concerned.

This study also confirms what one of my favorite dog writers, Roger Caras, once noted—“Remember, a dog is watching.”

Reprinted from Canine Corner on Psychology Today with permission.

What did you think about dogs recognizing different personality traits? We’d love to hear from you! Leave your comments below and let us know!

About the Author:

Stanley Coren is a psychology professor and neuro-psychological researcher renowned for his best selling and award-winning books on the intelligence, mental abilities and history of dogs. Through TV shows and media coverage that have been broadcast in Canada and the US as well as overseas, he has become popular with dog owners, while continuing research and instruction in psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He also writes for Psychology Today in the award-winning regular feature series, Canine Corner, where he discusses his research on dogs, dog behaviour, and the relationship between dogs and people. Stanley Coren is the author of many books - see


Canine psychologist Dr. Stanley Coren, author of numerous books and over 500 scientific publications on dog psychology, encourages others to participate in our petting events. Also read about the research on the impact our therapy dogs are making at the University of British Columbia.


Do you have a gentle well-behaved dog who loves people and is nice to other dogs? You may want to find out about joining our Therapy Dog Program. Check our Requirements to see if you are a right match and contact us. Let's see whether your dog would be suitable to work as a Therapy Dog providing love and comfort to people in need in your community!

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Enjoying these Articles? If you like, we can send future articles straight to your inbox!

Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page