Anyone who has ever had a dog or puppy for a friend knows just how loyal the animal can be. It is usually the first to greet us at the door and the first to snuggle up when we feel sad. In the last few years, some interesting research has been done to better understand dog behavior, particularly in comparison to wolf behavior.
One of the most interesting differences that has been observed and recorded in a number of different ways on blogs and YouTube videos has to do with food restraint. I’m sure we have all seen those videos where a dog has a tasty biscuit or a juicy piece of meat placed on its nose by its owner who says, “Don’t eat it.” The dog will lick its chops and salivate but usually obeys, head cocked at an awkward angle until the final word is given to chow down. Wolves, you see, lack this ability and have no restraint when it comes to food offered by humans. Only when another wolf is in the area will wolves exercise restraint and look before chowing.
Another interesting difference has to do with the way dogs respond to human hand signals. Most dogs, for instance, are very good at responding to pointing. When the owner points in a particular direction, the dog will often move to that spot immediately, looking for something relevant to retrieve. Wolves, as far as I’m aware, are not capable of this type of response.
Pointing gestures reveal something else interesting about dogs: the fact that their responses can be changed with learning. In a recent study conducted at Kyoto University, researchers looked to see whether dogs were capable of adapting to misleading gestures. In this study, the researchers used a number of dogs who had prior experience with people pointing to places with hidden food. The researchers introduced these dogs to new people who started pointing to places that contained no food. Surprisingly, the dogs were quick to start disregarding the signals from the unreliable people while maintaining the response to people who proved more reliable. This indicates the dog’s response to pointing is not automatic but attenuated by experience. In short, our pet is actually making a decision about whether we are trustworthy.
Being very social creatures, I am sure we have all seen stories about how benevolent and caring dogs can be. They have been known to raise the offspring of other species and almost every year, we hear a new story about a pet who tracks down its owner across unbelievably long distances. My favorite story is that of a dog I knew who tried to save a fish that had fallen out of an aquarium. But what about the benevolence of a dog towards other dogs?
Research from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna seems to indicate other dogs are not as lucky as we are. In this work, a dog was allowed to make the decision (by pulling one of two levers) of whether to give another dog food on a tray or an empty tray. In cases when the other dog was a family member or a known friend, the deciding dog tended to be very benevolent, usually pulling the lever with food. However, when the other dog was a stranger, the deciding dog was significantly less likely to provide food, preferring instead to pull the lever for the empty tray. This result is particularly striking because there was no benefit to the deciding dog whether he/she pulled the lever with food or not (giving the other dog food, for instance, did not prevent the deciding dog from getting food nor did either decision result in any reward).
So what this indicates is that dogs are actually capable of making social decisions by judging other dogs. Not only this, but they are capable of being selfish and knowingly being unhelpful even though there is no obvious personal benefit or disadvantage. Aren’t we lucky to be their best friend?
Justin Fendos is a Ph.D. from Yale and a professor at Dongseo University in Busan. He is also the associate director of the Tan School of Genetics at Fudan University, Shanghai, and a National Academy of Sciences Teaching Fellow.
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