For centuries now, we’ve been swallowing the propaganda that dogs are Man’s Best Friend. A dog will do anything for you, we’re told. A dog will travel 500 miles to return to your side. A dog will run for help if your child falls in a well. If you have a dog with you, you’re never alone. But now, it seems, there are limits to canine love and loyalty.
Scientists speculate that humans and canines first became friends when humans began sharing their food with wolves, who eventually evolved into the cuddlier, more domesticated dog. And since then, humans have been feeding dogs regularly, sometimes as bribes to ensure continued good behavior, but also sharing scraps from their own plates. Recently, however, a team of scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, began to wonder if this worked in reverse: if, given the chance, dogs would share their food with hungry and helpful humans?
The researchers trained 37 domestic dogs to operate a dispenser that would release food if the dogs pressed it with their noses. (I’m sure this part wasn’t hard.) Then the dogs were moved to separate enclosures. In the first stage of the experiment, pairs of humans guarded the button. One human was helpful and dispensed food for the dogs. The other human did not. In phase two, the humans and dogs swapped roles: the dogs got to dispense food for the humans. But the dogs did not treat the helpful and unhelpful humans any differently.
The experiment was based on principles established in previous studies: that dogs would help other dogs who had helped them out previously and that dogs can distinguish between helpful and unhelpful humans. But this experiment failed to synthesize the two ideas, that dogs would reciprocate aid from humans. Either that, or the dogs didn’t understand what they were supposed to be doing. Which is also a possibility.
The scientists wrote up the study in the journal PLOS One anyway. So now all of us who grew up believing Lassie was sort of like a documentary may have to readjust our world view. Or maybe dogs will save from drowning. They just won’t feed us.