There are about 320 million people in the United States, 37.2% of whom own dogs. That’s 118.4 million folks who have furry friends that — although they can’t talk — can tell if someone’s being mean to their owners.
In a study that will be published in the journal Animal Behaviour, Japanese researchers observed as three of groups of 18 dogs watched their owners tried to open a box, and interacted with two strangers. In the first group, the owner asked for help, and was refused by one person, while the other remained neutral, neither refusing nor helping. In the second, the owners asked for and received help from one person. In the third group, the owner requested assistance, and the two bystanders remained neutral.
Afterwards, the two confederates who accompanied the owner offered the observing dog some food. Researchers found that the dogs were more likely to choose to accept food from the first group’s neutral confederate than the one who refused. In the other scenarios, the dogs showed no preference.
“We discovered for the first time that dogs make social and emotional evaluations of people regardless of their direct interest,” said lead researcher Kazuo Fujita.
In other words, dogs don’t act solely out of self-interest. If they did, there would have been no difference among the groups, and an approximately equal number of canines would’ve accepted food, no matter who was offering it.
“This ability is one of the key factors in building a highly collaborative society, and this study shows that dogs share that ability with humans,” said Fujita.
Interestingly, this trait becomes present in children at about the age of three. What’s more, not all primates demonstrate this behavior, either.
“There is a similar study that showed tufted capuchins [a South American monkey] have this ability,” said Fujita, “but there is no evidence that chimpanzees demonstrate a preference unless there is a direct benefit to them.”