Dogs are more than just pets; they're a member of the family... right? If so, you'd think that they'd want to look after you just as much as you do for them. But, unfortunately, a study has found that this may not be the case.


Dogs won't give food to a human, even if that person gave them some food first, researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, have found.

Previous studies have shown that dogs can recognise cooperative and uncooperative humans, and that they would help dogs that had helped them previously. So, the team expected to find that their test subjects would put these two things together and show 'reciprocal altruism' – that is, doing a good thing in return – to a human who had given them food first.

First, the team trained a group of 37 dogs to press a button which would activate a food dispenser. Then, they put the dog in an enclosure with the dispenser, while one of two humans was in a separate enclosure with the button. One would press the button to dispense food for the dog, and the other would not. Each dog was paired with both humans in turn.

Then, the researchers switched over the button and the dispenser. They expected that the dogs would press the button to give food to the helpful human, but not the unhelpful one. Surprisingly, while the dogs did press the button sometimes, they did it just as often when either human had the food dispenser, and even when no human was there at all.

"In these kinds of studies in which dogs are trained to perform a particular behaviour for use in an experimental condition, they will usually perform the behaviour a few times as they have simply learned the association between the behaviour and getting a reward and it may be enjoyable for them to perform the behaviour," said Jim McGetrick, a PhD student at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna who led the research.

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"So although they did press the button and the human did get food on some trials, this was not because the dogs were trying to provide food to the human."

Why wouldn't our best pals want to help us out by giving us some food? Are they secretly all bad boys and girls? McGetrick believes there is a combination of reasons. "It is possible that the dogs did not understand enough about the task to realise that one human was providing them with food and the other wasn’t," he said. This could either be because they didn't fully understand the button and dispenser system, or 'inattentional blindness' – that is, they were too focused on the food to notice whether a particular human was pressing the button or not.

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"Having said all that, even if they did understand the task fully and were fully attentive to the actions of the humans, there is still a good likelihood that they wouldn’t have reciprocated," he added. "It could be that providing food to a human is something very strange for a dog as they do not typically do that in everyday life." After all, humans are the ones who already have food, from a dog's perspective – why would your pet need to worry about making sure you have enough?

However, all the humans in the study were people the dogs didn't know. "It is quite possible that the results reflect the bond (or lack thereof) between the dogs and the humans in the study," said McGetrick. So yes, your pup really does love you, and it's possible they'd help you out in a pinch, too.

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Sara RigbyOnline staff writer, BBC Science Focus

Sara is the online staff writer at BBC Science Focus. She has an MPhys in mathematical physics and loves all things space, dinosaurs and dogs.