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