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Dogs Recognize Generous Versus Selfish People

By observing human interactions dogs decide who is generous or selfish.

dog dogs canine canines pet pets generous selfish social eavesdropping

The next time you wave off a request from a friend family member for the last cookie on the plate and decide to eat 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 of all the dog actually had to see someone who was granted a treat or refused one. When the individuals carrying the bowls went through the same actions, only pretending to give or refuse to treat to an individual who was not there (perhaps to an invisible ghost?), the dogs formed no preference for either person. Furthermore, if instead of using both their voice and the gesture when granting or denying the treat, the people with the bowls used only one, it turns out that the voice tone was more important than the hand signal to the dog.

The researchers concluded that dogs are watching our social interactions and drawing conclusions about our personalities and our future behavioral predispositions based on what they see and hear. This is much the same way that people behave in social situations. If you see someone who is acting in a pleasant and helpful manner you are more apt to approach that individual then you would a person who is acting in a hostile and rejecting manner.

When I first saw the results of this study I accepted the simple and straightforward conclusions that were drawn from it. However, as often happens, the scientific and analytic portion of my mind would not let things go. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that this study showed something more important than the fact that dogs recognize generosity and selfishness in humans. The really important thing is that the dogs approached the humans as if they expected to be treated by us in the same way that we treat other people. What this means is that the dogs are either making the presumption that in many ways they are equivalent to human beings living in our social world, or we humans are equivalent to other dogs in the makeup of this mixed species pack that they live in. Thus while we scientists are always warning people not to think of our dogs as if they were little people in fur coats, dogs may well think of people as relatively hairless canines that walk on two feet, at least as far as social interactions are concerned.

This study also confirms what one of my favorite dog writers, Roger Caras, once noted—“Remember, a dog is watching.”

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

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