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Prosocial behavior by young children extends to dogs

Children learn at a young age how to help other humans and, by the age of two, can understand that people have feelings, thoughts and experiences that may differ from their own. The start of prosocial behavior (helping others) can be recognized at this age when children carry out actions for the purpose of helping, comforting, sharing or co-operating. But does this early empathy extend to non-human animals as well?

According to the authors of a new study on whether young children spontaneously help pet dogs, two key psychological capacities are necessary before a child begins to act prosocially. Firstly, the child must be able to infer the mental state of others, including their knowledge, emotions, beliefs and goals. Second, the child must be motivated to behave prosocially towards others, and especially to help them reach their own or joint goals. 

In the latest study, scientists from Duke University and from the University of Michigan tested whether children aged between two and three years spontaneously helped dogs to access a food treat or dog toy that was positioned just out of the dog’s reach. In this case, helping the dog necessitated both the ability to recognize the dog’s goals, and a motivation to behave prosocially on the part of the young children.

The researchers recruited 97 children between the ages of 1.7 and 3.1 years, from the city of Ann Arbor and surrounding towns. Among these children, 44 had pet dogs at home while 53 did not. The children took part in 338 trials at the University of Michigan’s child laboratory, between 2015 and 2020, where dogs were presented with a desirable item (food or toy) that was beyond their reach. There were three friendly dogs involved, namely Fiona, Henry and Seymour, and for each trial they were kept in a medium-sized pen from which they could see the desirable items through the sides. 

The results, published in the journal Human-Animal Interactions, showed that children spontaneously helped dogs to get the out-of-reach treats and toys in 50 percent of all trials where the dogs attempted to access these items themselves. The dogs would indicate their desire to acquire the item by either scratching on the sides of the pen, or attempting to lick the item through the enclosure gaps. 

In contrast, if the dog showed no interest in accessing the out-of-reach toy or treat, children only offered it the objects in 26 percent of instances. The researchers found that several other factors influenced whether children would help the dogs. Children who had a pet dog at home were more likely to help a dog access the object, and they were also more likely to help the dog in cases where the treat was a food item rather than a toy. Livelier dogs who were more engaged with a child were more readily helped than aloof dogs. 

“These findings lend support to our hypothesis that children’s early-developing proclivities for goal-reading and prosociality extend beyond humans, to other animals,” said Dr. Rachna Reddy, a lead scientist at Duke University.

“From several perspectives, children’s proclivities to attribute desires and goals to pet dogs during real-life, in-person interactions is unsurprising,” added Dr. Reddy, who is also a research associate in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. “However, we observed as early as two 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.”

The researchers suggest that, because helping behavior develops at such a young age in children, and because it is so culturally widespread, it may have significance in the evolutionary history of humans. Their findings add to a wide body of literature emphasizing that helpful, prosocial motivation has had a key role in the evolutionary success of humans.  

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

The researchers now suggest that future research will be necessary to examine additional psychological components of inter-specific instrumental helping, including the emotions that underlie children’s motivation to help dogs, how these motivations – as well as their cognitive attributions – are shaped by culture, and how all of the preceding processes change throughout a child’s development.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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