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Study: Dogs Show Compassion for Other Familiar Dogs

Dean Pomerleau

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As a dog owner and dog lover, I was interested and please to read this new study [1] (press release), which found dogs exhibit prosocial behavior to other dogs, and especially those whom they know. Its well-known that dogs (and their predecessors, wolves) are very social creatures. And the willingness of dogs to help humans is extremely well documented (e.g. famously, Lassie rescuing Timmy from the well. Although, what really happened was Lassie pushed a mean man down the well after he tried to hurt Timmy, so Lassie's moral status in this instance is not beyond reproach  :)xyz). But just how helpful dogs were to other dogs has not been (well) studied, until now.


The authors of [1] gave dogs the opportunity to pull either of two ropes, one that would give a dog in a neighboring cage a food treat, and one that would give the neighboring dog nothing. The donor dog got nothing out of the deal, except perhaps the good feeling that comes from helping a neighbor  :)xyz. And that is exactly what the donor dogs did, at least when the neighbor was a familiar dog (from the same household). Specifically, the donor dogs pulled the rope that gave his neighbor the treat significantly more often than the rope that gave no treat. Interestingly, the donor dog pulled the rope to give the neighbor the treat less often when the neighbor was a stranger dog than when the neighboring cage was empty - suggesting that dogs only feel the urge to help other dogs that they know, rather than any other dog, who they in fact may have some degree of aversion to - perhaps harkening back to their evolutionary heritage to exhibit in-group fealty and out-group hostility.


Below is a picture of two of the subject dogs, and the apparatus used for the testing:





So it looks like dogs aren't just man's best friend, they can be another dog's best friend too!





[1] Nature's Scientific Reports. (2015) DOI: 10.1038/srep18102


Familiarity affects other-regarding preferences in pet dogs


Mylene Quervel-Chaumette, Rachel Dale, Sarah Marshall-Pescini and Friederike Range


Free full text: http://www.nature.com/articles/srep18102




Other-regarding preferences are considered to be the foundation of human cooperation. However, the evolutionary origin of this behavior in humans remains poorly understood. So far, comparative studies in primates have led to mixed conclusions probably due to methodological differences relating to both task complexity and the types of control conditions used. Moreover, no clear link between phylogenetic relatedness and prosociality has been found, suggesting that other convergent selection pressures may play a role in the evolution of such behaviors. Here, using one of the cognitively less demanding tasks, we show for the first time, that dogs can behave pro-socially by donating food to a conspecific partner, but only if the partner is familiar. This highlights the importance of considering the social relationships between individuals when testing animals for other-regarding behaviors. Moreover, by including a social control condition, we show that the dogs’ prosocial response was not due to a simple social facilitation effect. The current findings support recent proposals that other convergent selection pressures, such as dependence on cooperative activities, rather than genetic relatedness to humans, may shape a species’ propensity for other-regarding behaviors.

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Speaking of dogs - here's mine. Her name is Zoe, she is a 5-year-old Havanese and she just got her Xmas haircut - hence the bow in her hair. She's very friendly but not so bright. I'm not sure how well she'd have done in the above experiment. Her best friend is a border collie, who I'm sure would do really well - he's very intelligent.




Does anyone else have a picture of their dog or other pet they'd like to share?!



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  • 3 weeks later...

Here is another cool study [1] on dog social skills (popular press article).


I've always thought dogs identified other dogs based primarily on smell. I've also seen how clueless Zoe is about a dog on TV, until/unless it barks, at which time she recognizes the dog by sound and barks back at it. It is very amusing. So I was surprised to learn that dogs can visually discriminate between dogs from a variety of breeds and non-dogs, based on pictures alone. Below are the kind of images the dogs saw in the study (top row dogs, bottom row non-dogs). Pretty tricky!




As a bonus, if you'd like to see Zoe struggling with winter in Pittsburgh, check out this short video. :)xyz [Note: this was last winter - we haven't had snow yet this year.]






[1] Anim Cogn. 2013 Jul;16(4):637-51. doi: 10.1007/s10071-013-0600-8. Epub 2013 Feb 14.

Visual discrimination of species in dogs (Canis familiaris).

Autier-Dérian D(1), Deputte BL, Chalvet-Monfray K, Coulon M, Mounier L.

Author information:
(1)LEEC, Université Paris 13, Av. Jean-Baptiste Clément, 93430 Villetaneuse,
France. autier.derian@free.fr

In most social interactions, an animal has to determine whether the other animal
belongs to its own species. This perception may be visual and may involve several
cognitive processes such as discrimination and categorization. Perceptual
categorization is likely to be involved in species characterized by a great
phenotypic diversity. As a consequence of intensive artificial selection,
domestic dogs, Canis familiaris, present the largest phenotypic diversity among
domestic mammals. The goal of our study was to determine whether dogs can
discriminate any type of dog from other species and can group all dogs whatever
their phenotypes within the same category. Nine pet dogs were successfully
trained through instrumental conditioning using a clicker and food rewards to
choose a rewarded image, S+, out of two images displayed on computer screens. The
generalization step consisted in the presentation of a large sample of paired
images of heads of dogs from different breeds and cross-breeds with those of
other mammal species, included humans. A reversal phase followed the
generalization step. Each of the nine subjects was able to group all the images
of dogs within the same category. Thus, the dogs have the capacity of species
discrimination despite their great phenotypic variability, based only on visual
images of heads.

PMID: 23404258
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