You hear it all the time. Dogs give unconditional love. No matter how badly someone mistreats them, they can’t help but return love.
I don’t think dogs are better than people (although they do have their moments). If a dog appeases someone who kicks him, he does it because it will help him survive. Not because he continues to “love” someone who harms him.
I think the reason dogs and humans are so close is because they are exactly as manipulative and self-serving as we are. And as species, we evolved together over a very long time to be that way.
The Experiment – Do Dogs Prefer a Generous Person?
I started thinking about this when I saw a video Mel of No Dog About It Blog posted under the title, “Is Your Dog Watching You?”. I had read about this study conducted in Milan where the scientists tested to see if a dog would prefer someone she saw behaving generously over someone behaving selfishly.
You can check out the video for yourself.
To me, it seemed obvious that the dog observed one person sharing. And the dog said to herself, “If that person shared with another person, maybe she’ll share with me.” And that’s very smart reasoning.
One of the commenters at Mel’s blogs wrote that she assumed dogs would want to be around the happier, more cheerful person. She noted that the person who didn’t share also used a harsh voice.
Which got me thinking…
The Experiment Tried a New Way
If you conducted an experiment where you had a bouncy, happy person speaking in high tones who never shared treats sitting near someone who spoke harshly, stomped around like an ogre, but had liver falling out of his pockets every few seconds, who would the dog prefer?
I expect the dog would say, “Show me the liver.”
Here’s our terribly unscientific test:
My husband Mike and I went out onto the front porch leaving Honey in the house to watch through the glass, storm door. We each had a bowl of cooked chicken and sat equal distances from Honey.
Mike spoke harshly and ranted while slowly eating bits of chicken. I spoke in high pitched, happy tones. After Honey had watched this for a few moments, I let her out where we continued our behaviors.
However, Mike started tossing chicken on the ground while he was ranting and raving while I did not toss chicken but continued to talk in a happy voice.
Honey came up to me immediately and sat down in front of me. When she realized Mike was dropping chicken, she went over to eat it but quickly returned to wait in front of me for a treat. When Mike increased the speed with which he dropped the chicken, she stayed close to his side but kept looking back at me.
Eventually she realized I was not going to share and she remained at Mike’s side while he continued to rant and drop chicken.
What We Learned From the New Experiment
- First, we learned that we need more friends willing to get up at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning to help us with our crazy dog experiments. This would have gone much easier with two more people.
- Honey has very strong associations of receiving treats from me so that even if I’m not offering treats, she assumes (for quite a long time) that I will give her something eventually. It made her unwilling to turn her back to me to get the treats Mike was tossing.
- Honey may also have been responding to the “cutesy” tone of voice I was using but we’ll never know for sure. I don’t often talk like that with her so I think she was just expecting treats based on my past history with her.
- Finally, we learned it’s a good thing both of us have found work outside the scientific professions because based on our half-*ssed experiment, we would not have jobs for long.
Softening the Swagger
Listen, I know it sounds harsh to call a dog (and even a human) self-serving. It doesn’t fit with what many of us know about real, altruistic acts by dogs and by humans.
But the reality is that animals (canines and human) need to survive long enough to reproduce. And without having that concept in the front of our brains all the time (have you ever heard a teenager ask himself, “If I jump off that waterfall into a river I know nothing about, will I live long enough to pass on my genes?”), it still influences our behavior.
And yet, I do believe that dogs love us just as we love them. You may find scientists who explain changes in a dog’s brain chemistry when they bond with a human. They’ll tell you emotion has a biological explanation and not to get too “mushy” about it.
But I love the fact that Honey is complex enough to act in her own best interests some of the time while deferring to our interests (which is ultimately in her best interest since we buy the kibble) at other times. I love the fact that dogs are smart enough to try to figure out how to manipulate their world to get what they want.
If I didn’t, I’d just have a goldfish.
What do you think? And have you ever done any “experiments” to test what you think you know about your dog?
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