New Study Shows Dogs Do Not Return the Favor after Strangers Feed Them


We have become so used to treating our dogs like our children that we reward them with treats when they do something nice for us. However, have you ever wondered if your beloved pups would reward if you did something nice for them? Well, a new study shows that dogs don’t return the favor after strangers feed them. It is not conclusive, seeing that since only 37 pet dogs were subjects of the experiment. Besides, we have already seen numerous cases where dogs have shown their selfless nature towards their human parents. Still, the study cannot be ignored, so here is more.

A Good Deed Does Not Deserve Another

The Smithsonian Magazine published that a team of researchers led by Jim McGetrick sought to see if fed dogs would return the favor by feeding the person who fed them. The study is the first of its kind, so the team trained 37 pet dogs to get food from a dispenser by pressing a button. After ensuring that the dogs associated the buttons with food, the researchers separated the button and food dispensed. The food dispenser remained in the same room with the dog while the button was placed in another room where a stranger would press it.

The separation was such that the dog would see the human pressing the button, and the helpful stranger would press the button, and the food will be availed to the dog through the dispenser in the other room. The study also included having a decoy button pressed such that when the human pressed, no food was released. According to McGetrick, when the decoy button was pressed, and the dogs did not get food, they made such a big fuss that the team equated it to throwing tantrums. The study later changed to have the dog press the button, and the humans were in another room waiting for the food to be dispensed. However, the team observed that the dogs were not eager to feed the humans. Furthermore, they did not differentiate between the stranger that had fed them and the one who had pressed the decoy buttons. So when they pushed the buttons to feed the humans, the pups were not keen to return the favor. Even after they were released from their rooms to interact with the helpful and unhelpful strangers, the canines bore no grudge against the unhelpful and socialized with both humans equally.

The Results are Not Conclusive

Although the team saw that the dogs did not return the favor after being fed by strangers, McGetrick concluded that probably it is because the humans were not the dogs’ owners. He explained that the conditions could have influenced the specific results of the study. He reasoned that maybe the unfamiliarity with the humans could have affected the results adding that maybe it would have been different had they been fed by their winners. McGetrick argued that dogs don’t perceive themselves as providers hence the reluctance to press the buttons. Alternatively, they did not associate the button with feeding the humans. For this reason, reciprocating the favor is not ruled out yet as more studies need to be done. A philosophy researcher from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was not part of the research team. Still, he said that perhaps the reciprocation experiment failed because the researchers did not set it up in a way that dogs understand. He said that dogs perceive the environment with their sense of smell, not their sight; hence the experiments should have been carried out from the dogs’ perspective. Another researcher agreed that more research needs to be done, and maybe dogs with more training, such as military dogs, are ideal for such studies. In essence, if a highly trained canine reciprocates, then it will make sense to include the less trained canines. However, if the military dogs exhibit a level of reciprocation, it would show that dogs can return the favor to strangers who feed them.

Maybe the Study Should Consider Classical Conditioning

While McGetrick is unsure if the digs associated the food dispensed with the buttons pressed, other experiments have shown that canines may be conditioned to respond to unrelated stimuli. For instance, according to Vet Street, Ivan Pavlov’s experiments concluded that dogs could eventually associate with stimuli that did not yield a response initially. The study showed that dogs associated the bell ringing with being fed; hence they would start salivating. A dog’s behavior can be influenced by changing the stimulus related to a natural response through classical conditioning. If McGetrick adopted this different approach, then pressing the button would not even be necessary to study the reciprocation behavior. Perhaps introducing an unrelated stimulus would result in a dog associating it with feeding a human.

Angie Johnston, a Boston College psychology researcher, said that knowing about the human-dog relation is critical to training service dogs. Therefore, studying the evolution of the human-canine bond would inform the training process. Such arguments also led to another experiment that sought to understand if digs prefer praise to food. According to Science Daily, Gregory Berns, an Emory University neuroscientist, wanted to understand the human-dog bond, wondering if the two species are connected by something other than food. Berns said that dogs are only interested in food as per the Pavlov experiment, and humans are their providers. Still, other researchers concluded that the canines are interested in human contact itself. However, another study showed that dogs prefer generous humans when it comes to choosing their favorite humans. According to CNBC, a study that was published in a scientific journal concluded that dogs could recognize a generous person and remember him hence will develop a preference for kind people over selfish ones. The conclusion contradicts McGetrick results that showed the canines did not differentiate between who fed them and who did not.

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