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Toddlers under 3 years old willingly want to help dogs who ‘ask’

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This project indicates to me that humans in general want to connect with and help animals. It is a desire to connect with nature from whence we came and from which we are often disconnected. If I am correct, if an adult human is cruel to animals, it is due to nurture issues, poor parenting in round terms. What follows is a summary of this research project. It is a little bit technical as is to be expected.

The study tested the hypothesis that children’s ability to understand the goals of others and their inclination to help others extends to interactions with nonhuman animals, specifically pet dogs. It could also apply to domestic cats in my view. The study is published on the CABI Digital Library website. Ninety-seven toddlers participated.

They found that children were more likely to help dogs access objects that the dogs were attempting to reach but could not reach themselves, and that this behavior was more likely when the children lived with pet dogs, when the dogs were livelier and more engaged, and when the item was a treat rather than a toy. The findings support the idea that children’s prosocial motivation and goal-reading abilities extend to interactions with nonhuman animals. ‘Prosocial’ means “relating to or denoting behaviour which is positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship”.

Child dog interaction pen

Child dog interaction pen. Image: the researchers.

Humans have formed interdependent relationships with domesticated animals for millennia, and that these relationships are essential for survival, but we understand little about how human capabilities for interspecies care evolved. Humans are the only animals known to habitually care for and raise individuals of other species on a large scale. This asks the question of how these animal care practices arose in so many different cultures and locations and with so many different nonhuman animal species.

One hypothesis is that as a species, humans are highly capable and motivated to behave in helpful and caregiving ways towards other species because the psychological foundations that enable human-to-human cooperation extend to other animals.

There are two key psychological capacities that facilitate cooperation and helping in human-to-human contexts: the ability to infer others’ mental states, including knowledge, emotions, beliefs, desires, and goals of others (Theory of Mind) and a motivation to behave prosocially towards others, and especially to help them to reach their own or joint goals. Helping is an action that necessitates both goal-reading and prosocial motivation.

The researchers observed 2 to 3-year-old children helping naturally-behaving pet dogs acquire treats or toys that dogs struggled to reach on their own. The study found that children gave dogs these out-of-reach objects significantly more often when dogs struggled to reach the objects compared to when dogs naturally ignored objects placed in the same out-of-reach location.

This distinction indicates that children’s actions stem, in large part, from a recognition of the dog’s goals and desires, and support the hypothesis that children’s early-developing helping propensities extend to nonhuman animals as well as other humans. The study also found other factors influenced this behavior, such as children’s baseline motivation to interact with an unfamiliar, friendly dog, whether they had a pet dog at home, the dog’s energy and engagement level, and children’s particular motivation to give food to dogs.

There are alternative explanations of the study’s findings, such as the possibility that children provided items to dogs because children perceived doing so as helping the human experimenter. However, the study found that children discriminately provided out-of-reach items based on the dogs’ behavior, indicating that children’s actions stem from a recognition of the dog’s goals and desires.

The researchers noted that these findings have important evolutionary significance and may have contributed to the domestication of many species across the planet, and also have intriguing practical implications, such as in the training and use of working dogs.

The study has limitations. They used a ‘quasi-experimental design’ which means that it does not have the same level of control as a traditional experimental design and this could have introduced unknown confounding factors. The study used three iterations of the study with different procedures, target objects, and dog temperaments, which could have contributed to variations in the results and introduce unknown confounding factors that could affect the overall findings.

Link to the study.