Dogs don't return the favour

When given the option, dogs didn't reciprocate feeding the humans that fed them
15 July 2021

Interview with 

Jim McGetrick, The University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna


Dog drinking from a water bowl


You may share everything with your dog, from your bed to the food from your table. But recent research suggests that, unfortunately, those favours are not likely to be returned. Eva Higginbotham spoke to Jim McGetrick from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna... 

Eva - Many of us are totally enamored with our dogs and feel that we would do almost anything to keep them warm, happy, and importantly fed. And we might like to think that our dogs would return the favor, and, given the option, feed us too

Jim - After dogs have been trained to use a food dispenser, dogs experienced a 'helpful human', which provided them with food using the food dispenser, and an 'unhelpful human' who didn't provide them with food.

Eva - That's Jim McGetrick from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, and he set out to see if dogs would choose to feed humans by interacting with a food dispenser they themselves had been fed with. But, unfortunately...

Jim - The dogs didn't reciprocate the receipt of food. So regardless of whether the human had been helpful, providing food, or unhelpful, not providing food, the dogs didn't provide food in return.

Eva - Despite conventional wisdom that your pup is going to love whoever feeds them, the researchers also didn't see any difference in how the dogs responded to the people who either fed or didn't feed them. Though, Jim pointed out it may be that building that kind of relationship just takes some time.

Jim - It's important to note, in our experimental setup, it was an artificial setting. Let's say there was no communicative interaction of any note between the human and the dog. And there was also no physical contact, and with most natural cooperative interactions - so, for example, like you've seen primates grooming each other - you've got very clear physical interactions. So it's very difficult in those situations to ignore the fact, or to not notice the fact, that another individual is doing something nice for you.

Eva - So perhaps the dogs just didn't fully understand that they were being fed by a human and as such, it might be nice to return the favour. But do dogs even show these kinds of behaviours with other dogs?

Jim - Our group previously showed that dogs will provide food to other dogs in a similar setup. And what's interesting there is the dogs did provide food to partners, but only if those partners were familiar to them, in most cases, meaning from the same household.

Eva - Friends and family only then! Importantly though, food sharing just doesn't seem to be a natural behaviour for dogs, as many dog owners could confidently attest, unlike other animals, like some primates, for whom food sharing is the natural order of things. And it turns out the theories for how these behaviours arise in the brain are still not completely understood.

Jim - Previously it was generally kind of assumed that to reciprocate a cooperative behaviour you require a lot of complex cognitive abilities. For example, a very complex memory, the ability to stop yourself from consuming a particular resource so that you can give it to another individual, the ability to plan - to know that if I give you this resource, that that will result in me getting some resource from you in the future. Well, the tide has kind of shifted on how we view reciprocal cooperation or how it's likely that it comes about in animals. So now the view is more that most reciprocity in animals is probably a more emotionally based interaction. So for example, if you imagine two primates interacting, they groom each other. And this results in the development of a relationship, which as a consequence results in this kind of reciprocity with regards to grooming, but it's not necessarily the case that those two individuals are thinking about that and calculating, okay, well that individual gave me 10 units of grooming last time, I'm going to give them 10 this time. Or last time they gave me less than I give them, so I'm gonna, you know, change it. It's probably more likely that the receipt of grooming, or whatever other cooperative act, results in a positive attitude towards that individual.

Eva - So perhaps reciprocal behaviour in animals could be thought of more as a warm bond with another creature, as opposed to a calculated tit for tat. That said, if a dog wouldn't feed me in return, I might as well just stick with my cat.


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