Dogs May Not Return Their Owners’ Good Deeds

Summary: A new study demonstrated dogs do not reciprocate food-giving, nor do they act more favorably toward a friendly human.

Source: PLOS

Domestic dogs show many adaptations to living closely with humans, but they do not seem to reciprocate food-giving according to a study, publishing July 14 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, led by Jim McGetrick and colleagues at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria.

The researchers trained 37 domestic dogs to operate a food dispenser by pressing a button, before separating the button and dispenser in separate enclosures. In the first stage, dogs were paired with two unfamiliar humans one at a time. One human partner was helpful – pressing their button to dispense food in the dog’s enclosure – and one was unhelpful.

The researchers also reversed the set-up, with a button in the dog’s enclosure that operated a food dispenser in the human’s enclosure. They found no significant differences in the dogs’ tendency to press the button for helpful or unhelpful human partners, and the human’s behavior in the first stage did not affect the dog’s behavior towards them in free interaction sessions after the trials.

This shows an adorable puppy with big eyes
However, the present study failed to find evidence that dogs can combine these capabilities to reciprocate help from humans. Image is in the public domain

Previous studies have demonstrated that dogs are capable of directing helpful behaviors towards other dogs that have helped them previously – a behavior known as reciprocal altruism – and research suggests dogs are also able to distinguish between cooperative and uncooperative humans. However, the present study failed to find evidence that dogs can combine these capabilities to reciprocate help from humans.

This finding may reflect a lack of ability or inclination among dogs to reciprocate, or the experimental design may not have detected it.

For example, the authors suggest that the dogs may not have understood the experiment because humans are typically the food-giver in the relationship, not the receiver, or because the dogs failed to recognize the connection between the human’s helpful behavior and the reward.

The authors add: “In our study, pet dogs received food from humans but did not return the favour.”

Funding: JM was funded by a DOC fellowship of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) ( at the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology, University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna. JM and FR were funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) ( number W1262-B29. MM was funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) number P30704 ( The funders of this study did not play any role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

About this animal psychology research news

Source: PLOS
Contact: Jim McGetrick – PLOS
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Dogs fail to reciprocate the receipt of food from a human in a food-giving task” by  Jim McGetrick et al. PLOS ONE


Dogs fail to reciprocate the receipt of food from a human in a food-giving task

Domestic dogs have been shown to reciprocate help received from conspecifics in food-giving tasks. However, it is not yet known whether dogs also reciprocate help received from humans.

Here, we investigated whether dogs reciprocate the receipt of food from humans.

In an experience phase, subjects encountered a helpful human who provided them with food by activating a food dispenser, and an unhelpful human who did not provide them with food. Subjects later had the opportunity to return food to each human type, in a test phase, via the same mechanism. In addition, a free interaction session was conducted in which the subject was free to interact with its owner and with whichever human partner it had encountered on that day.

Two studies were carried out, which differed in the complexity of the experience phase and the time lag between the experience phase and test phase. Subjects did not reciprocate the receipt of food in either study. Furthermore, no difference was observed in the duration subjects spent in proximity to, or the latency to approach, the two human partners.

Although our results suggest that dogs do not reciprocate help received from humans, they also suggest that the dogs did not recognize the cooperative or uncooperative act of the humans during the experience phase. It is plausible that aspects of the experimental design hindered the emergence of any potential reciprocity.

However, it is also possible that dogs are simply not prosocial towards humans in food-giving contexts.

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