Helping dogs comes naturally to children, study finds

DURHAM, N.C. — A pup in need is a friend indeed, at least for children. Fascinating new research examined how quickly children help dogs, ultimately finding that kids can’t help but lend a hand in many situations.

Study authors report children between two and three years-old are twice as likely to help a dog get their paws on a treat or toy if the animal shows interest. Notably, children in the study were more likely to help a pup get out-of-reach items if they lived with a pet dog themselves, the dogs were livelier, or if the item was a treat instead of a toy.

These results come from experiments conducted at the University of Michigan’s child laboratory between 2015 and 2020, with the help of three friendly dogs — Fiona, Henry, and Seymour.

A picture of tree dogs
Dog experimenters Fiona, Henry and Seymour (CREDIT: Duke University)

“These findings lend support to our hypothesis that children’s early-developing proclivities for goal-reading and prosociality extend beyond humans to other animals,” says lead scientist Dr. Rachna Reddy, a postdoctoral fellow in evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, and a research associate in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, in a media release.

Kids are twice as likely to help dogs in need

A total of 97 toddlers (51 girls, 46 boys) between 20 and 47 months-old took part in this project, all from middle-class families in and around the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan or nearby towns. Most of the kids were white (71%), while the rest were either multiracial, African American, Latino, or Asian. In all, 44 kids had dogs at home, while the other 53 did not.

The toddlers gave the dogs out-of-reach treats and toys in 50 percent of all scenarios in which the dogs tried to access these items themselves. On the other hand, if the dogs ignored the item entirely, the kids only offered the object to the pups on 26 percent of occasions. Study authors add they were not surprised to observe that children were more likely to give pups the objects if they had a dog at home, the experimental dog was acting highly engaged, or the object was food and not a toy.

“From several perspectives, children’s proclivities to attribute desires and goals to pet dogs during real-life, in-person interactions is unsurprising,” Dr. Reddy explains. “However, we observed as early as 2 years of age, children behave in ways showing they are not only able to read the goal-directed behavior of another animal but can and do employ that knowledge to help an animal reach its own goal.”

“In addition to informing us about childhood helping, these early child behaviors may have important evolutionary significance.”

Moving forward, Dr. Reddy believes future research will be necessary to better understand the additional psychological components linked to inter-specific instrumental helping, such as the emotions driving kids’ motivation to help dogs, how these motivations and cognitive attributions are influenced by culture, and how such processes change throughout development.

The study is published in the journal Human-Animal Interactions.

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John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

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