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The Lube Effect: Dogs Foster Cooperation and Trust in Humans

A new study shows that dogs serve as social lubricants and foster friendliness

Dogs increase prosocial behavior in human groups

Empirical research and numerous stories show that dogs can serve as social catalysts. When I visit dog parks and talk with people about what I call "the lube effect," I learn that dogs pull people together, including individuals who might not otherwise socially interact, in many different ways. And now, a recent study published in the journal Anthrozoös by Central Michigan University's Dr. Stephen Colarelli and his colleagues titled "A Companion Dog Increases Prosocial Behavior in Work Groups" shows that dogs foster closeness, cooperation, and trust in small working groups of humans. The abstract for this very interesting and informative study reads as follows:

Although organizations use a variety of interventions to improve group functioning, getting people to work effectively with each other remains challenging. Because the presence of a dog has been shown to have positive effects on mood and dyadic interaction, we expected that the presence of a companion dog would also have positive effects on people in work groups. One reason for this is that a companion dog is likely to elevate positive emotions, which often promote prosocial behavior. In study 1 (n = 120) and study 2 (n = 120), participants were randomly assigned to either a dog present (sic) or dog-absent four-person group. Three friendly companion dogs were randomly assigned to the dog-present groups; only one dog at a time was used during any given experimental session. In study 1, groups worked on an interactive problem-solving task; participants in the dog-present group displayed more verbal cohesion, physical intimacy, and cooperation. Study 2 was identical except that participants worked on a decision-making task requiring less interaction; participants in the dog-present condition displayed more verbal cohesion and physical intimacy and gave higher ratings of trustworthiness to fellow group members. In study 3, we examined behavioral indicators of positive emotions in dog-present and dog-absent groups. Naïve observers (n = 160) rated silent, 40-second video clips of interaction in groups where either a dog was (1) present but not visible or (2) not present. Behavior in dog-present groups was rated as more cooperative, comfortable, friendly, active, enthusiastic, and attentive. We discuss areas for future research and implications of our findings for work and educational settings.

This research paper is not available online, however, an excellent essay by Jill Suttle called "How Dogs Help People Get Along Better" nicely summarizes the results of this important study and how it was done. Basically, as noted above, the researchers gave individuals in small groups some tasks to do with or without a dog in the room. Interactions among the people were videotaped and afterwards they were interviewed about how satisfied they were and how much they trusted the other people in their group. Ms. Suttle writes:

Regardless of the task, groups with a dog showed more verbal and physical signs of closeness than groups without a dog. Also, raters observed more signs of cooperation during the first task, and group members reported that they trusted each other more during the second task, if a dog was in the room.

These results suggest that there is something about the presence of a dog that increases kind and helpful behavior in groups.

Why does "the lube effect" exist?

The researchers also wondered if these increases in prosocial behavior occurred because "dogs make us feel good." So, they asked independent dates to watch a short videotape of groups in study 1. They discovered "The raters noticed many more good feelings in groups with a companion dog in the room than in groups with no dog, lending some support for their theory."

While the dogs didn't have any observed effect on performance, Dr. Colarelli believes that performance might also be enhanced by the presence of a dog. He notes, "In a situation where people are working together for a long period of time, and how well the team gets along—do they speak together, have rapport, act cooperatively, help one another—could influence the outcome of the team, then I suspect a dog would have a positive impact..."

It's good to see some empirical data supporting the numerous stories people (often called "citizen scientists") tell about how dogs positively effect them and others in different ways. I look forward to more research in this area to see just how robust these findings are. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if they proved to have wide applicability.

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in April 2017 and Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018. His homepage is

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