Therapy Dog
Patient Isabelle Stadella hughs Joca, a therapeutically trained dog, during a therapy session at Hospital Infantil Sabara in Sao Paulo October 18, 2013. Reuters

Dogs exhibit human-like levels of altruism, according to a new study published in Nature's Scientific Reports. Researchers call this prosocial behaviour, a trait commonly seen in humans and apes which is characterised by helping others without any personal benefit.

“Dogs and their nearest relatives, the wolves, exhibit social and cooperative behaviour, so there are grounds to assume that these animals also behave prosocially toward conspecifics,” the study director Friederike Range said in a press release. “Additionally, over thousands of years of domestication, dogs were selected for special social skills."

The researchers studied the prosocial behaviour of 16 dogs through a bar-pulling task. This required the dogs to pull a string to bring a tray if they decide whether another dog should receive a treat. However, the donor dog itself did not get any treat; the only purpose of the test was to benefit the other dog. The researchers found that the dogs pulled the string more often for familiar dogs than for unfamiliar ones.

"Dogs truly behave prosocially toward other dogs. That had never been experimentally demonstrated before,” Range noted. “What we also found was that the degree of familiarity among the dogs further influenced this behaviour.”

"We were also able to disprove the argument that the dogs pulled the string less frequently because they were distracted by the unfamiliar partner during the test,” Range added. “Only rarely did a donor dog interact with the unfamiliar dog."

This study is a first, according to the authors. It has always been debated if dogs’ good-natured attitude is inherent or just an effect after years of human domestication. The researchers said that the findings prove that dogs actually exhibit prosocial behaviour and are not merely being obedient or acting on commands.

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