Lend a Helping Paw

Dogs are highly social beings who express their social nature in a variety of ways. They desire companionship with others and readily integrate into our human families and lives. Most of our dogs love to play and to learn new things and enjoy spending time together going for walks, a ride in the car or simply hanging out for a cuddle on the couch. Given the choice, most dogs prefer to share their days with their human family rather than alone and many also have strong social relationships (friendships) with other dogs or even with members of other species.


Canine Friendships Come in Many Forms

Although not yet studied thoroughly, dogs may also exhibit certain types of “prosocial” behavior. These are spontaneous actions that are intended to help another individual in some way, usually with no obvious benefit to the helper. Psychologists have defined four general categories of prosocial behavior. These are comforting, sharing, informing and helping. At least anecdotally, comforting is something that dogs seem to excel at.  Many dog owners relate that their dog is very empathic, seems to know when they are sad or are having a bad day, and often stays close at hand to provide comfort and love. Behaviors related to sharing may be less common, but certainly many of us have known a dog or two who readily shares his toys, bed or food with others.

sharing stick      sharing bed  Sharing water           Sharing (?) a stick                         Sharing a bed                       Sharing a drink

What about the most complex prosocial behavior – Helping? There is no doubt that dogs can be successfully trained to help humans. Examples abound and include dogs who aid the disabled, move or protect livestock, find illicit contraband, and perform in search and rescue operations. The number and variety of trained skills that dogs use to help us are both vast and impressive. However, prosocial helping is a bit different because this type of aid occurs spontaneously with little or no former training. Prosocial helping behavior is intrinsically (internally) motivated by empathy or a sense of community and occurs without an obvious or anticipated reward to the performer.

For dogs, this form of helping is considered to be a relatively complex social behavior because it requires two things. First, the dog must understand the goal of the person who is in need. Second, the dog must be motivated to help the person to achieve that goal. For example, in the case of helping a person to find something, the dog has to understand that something is hidden/lost and that the owner is searching for it (and wants it) and must also have a desire (i.e. be motivated ) to help the person to find the object. It is this second component of helping, the intrinsic or internal motivation to help others, that a group of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany recently studied. They asked the question: “Are dogs inclined to lend a helping paw?

The Study: The researchers conducted a series of four experiments to determine whether dogs would come to the aid of a person who was attempting to enter another room to retrieve a set of keys. The same scenario was used in each experiment, but the identity of the person and the way in which the person communicated his goal to the dog were varied.

  • Door opening behavior: Prior to the start of the experiments, dogs were trained to open a plexiglass door that entered into a small room (i.e. the target room) by hitting a button that was positioned on the ground in front of the door. Dogs and people could easily see into the target room. The dogs were trained to hit the button and open the door via shaping and positive reinforcement (food treats). This training took place several days prior to the actual experiment and only dogs who successfully learned to hit the button were included in the experiment. The behavior used for opening the door was purposely trained without a cue, to ensure that the dogs learned how to open the door but were not trained to respond to a specific command to do so.
  • Experimental conditions: During each experiment, a researcher or the dog’s owner communicated to the dog their desire to enter the target room by one of several means. These included either pushing on the door, reaching for the door, pointing at the button, using gaze (either into the room alone or alternating between the room and the dog), talking (general terms), commanding the dog, or a combination of spontaneous (natural) communicative gestures. In all conditions, the goal that the owner or experimenter was attempting to communicate to the dog was that they needed to enter the target room to retrieve the keys that were on the floor. (Note: Keys were purposely used as an object that would have no or little value to the dogs, thus ensuring that their inclination to help was not motivated by a desire to retrieve a toy or to obtain food). In each experiment, the control was a person who sat near the dog but did not communicate a desire to enter the target room.

Results: Dogs were highly likely to help in two primary conditions. These were either when the person used pointing gestures that were directed toward the button that opened the door or when the person used a variety of “natural” communication gestures simultaneously such as gesturing, talking, gazing and pointing to express their goal. Interestingly, the person’s identity did not influence the dog’s response. Dogs were as likely to help a stranger as they were to help their owner. The researchers concluded that the dogs in this study were highly motivated to help a human when the person’s goal was clearly communicated using either a common communication signal (pointing) or a variety of naturally selected gestures in combination. They suggested that an absence of helping behavior in dogs may be more likely occur when dogs do not understand the person’s goal,  rather than due to the lack of an intrinsic desire to be of aid.

Helping Dog

Will your dog lend a helping paw?

Take Away for Dog Folks:

  • It’s all about communication: The results of this study emphasize some important issues about how we communicate with dogs. When isolated gestures or verbal commands were used to attempt to communicate the person’s goals, dogs did not perform well. Give this a try and see how unnatural it feels. Point or gaze at something near your dog but do not use any additional words, body language or gaze. Does your dog respond? (Mine did not – they just looked at me like I was a crazy person). Conversely, when owners were instructed to just “communicate naturally” with their dog using a myriad of signals, the dogs’ understanding and success increased dramatically. While this difference is not all that surprising, it is important information for trainers and owners to keep in mind. Simply issuing a command or gesturing stiffly won’t cut the mustard with most dogs. Similar to communicating with the humans in our lives, effective communication with dogs includes a variety of  simultaneously delivered verbal and non-verbal signals – signals that can be messy and complex and difficult to define, but ultimately that are most successful at getting the message across.
  • Imperative versus informative gestures:  Researchers who study dog cognition are interested in whether dogs are capable of understanding human communicative gestures as being informative (i.e. providing helpful information) rather than interpreting them only as imperative (i.e. as a command to do something). This is an important distinction because while it is well-known that dogs can be trained to perform quite complex tasks and respond to trained cues, there is not that much scientific evidence showing us that dogs regularly use human behavior as information (although anecdotal evidence of this certainly abounds). The results of this study, and a few others before it, suggest that dogs are capable of perceiving certain human gestures, such as pointing and gazing, as information and that they may subsequently use that information to act (and help).
  • Empathy – Yep, they got it. There is no doubt that dogs are of great help to us, in a myriad of ways. We train dogs to aid the disabled, protect us, find lost children, and comfort the ill. However, that type of helping (while noteworthy and admirable in its own right) differs qualitatively from spontaneous helping in which the dog perceives a need and, presumably motivated by empathy, reacts by providing aid. It is this latter form of helping that was tested in this study. The cleverly designed set of experiments showed that when the goal of the person was clearly communicated to the dogs, many immediately helped the experimenter – and did so even when there was no obvious reward available to them. While all dog lovers know in our heart of hearts that our dogs express love, concern, and even compassion for others, here is some science showing us that contrary to the beliefs of an ever declining few, humans do not have a corner on the empathy market. Once understanding is achieved, our dogs are willing to  help us – even with something as mundane as helping someone to enter a room to retrieve some keys! (Just think about what they may be capable of when we really need their help). Have some fun – Test your own dog and find out if he is willing to lend you a helping paw!
Helping Dog

What does your dog help you with?

Reference: Brauer J, Schonefeld K, Call J. When do dogs help humans? Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2013;148:138-149.

16 thoughts on “Lend a Helping Paw

  1. Pingback: I Feel Your Pain – The Science Dog

    • Hi Mark

      Scent communication in mammals is a huge area of tantalising observations, a few thorough studies, speculation and untested assumption. The miserable inadequacy of our own sense of smell and how our brains process olfactory input render us as blind men with elephants. One of the main problems with scent rubbing and rolling as communication to group members is that mammals that live solitarily also do it. It is also far from clear what the benefit is to telling the rest of the group that there is an inedible rotten carcase somewhere.


  2. Research on dogs and wolves with regard to pointing shows that dogs are adept at following that hand gesture. (Wolves not so much.) So if the locked-out person points at the button, it does not surprise me that the dogs push it. I don’t think it means they are trying to be helpful, just curious. What interests me is dogs helping dogs. I recently experienced a situation where my dog “helped” a fearful dog swim to shore. It was the darndest thing I have ever seen, and even with my skeptic hat on, I had to admit something was going on there!


  3. My name is Vince Stead and I just got done looking at your site and really liked it. I make dog books in Paperback, Digital and Audio too. You can see them at http://www.Fun2ReadBooks.com and the audio books are fun to listen to. Thank you very much and I enjoyed your site!


  4. Great post — so many onlookers marvel that my Seeing Eye dog Whitney knows left from right, but if they watched closely they’d notice that I’m actually pointing in the direction I want her to lead me while simultaneously commanding right, left, or forward with a positive lilt to my voice. We are taught to do that when training with our Seeing Eye dogs, and we also turn our shoulders the way we want the dog to take us. Just like you say, “Simply issuing a command or gesturing stiffly won’t cut the mustard with most dogs.”



    • Thanks Beth! Very interesting observation about Whitney’s training. One of the things that I was struck with in this paper is that it emphasizes some of the tension that exists between a purely behavioristic approach to working with dogs (i.e. clicker trainers often purposefully limit and refine their cues with the intent of attaining stimulus control) and a cognitive approach. Personally, I don’t see the two as necessarily exclusive, but we are seeing rather heated discussions between the two “camps” if you will. Ahhhh Science……always exciting! 🙂 Hope all is well with you! Linda


      • I think that one of the reasons that inexperienced handlers are often taught to give very definite cues is that so may people tend to fidget (shifting their feet, moving their hands, jiggling the lead, randomly touching the dog) in ways that have no connection at all with anything that they want the dog to do. Cutting out all that random noise makes it easier for the dog to associate cue with action with reward.


  5. It would be interesting to see this experiment performed after more time had elapsed since the new behavior of pushing the door button was installed. Dogs tend to perform newly-learned behaviors any chance they get, especially if it’s not under stimulus control (doesn’t have a cue and hasn’t been proofed). Working this behavior into regular training time with the dog, over maybe a month, with other new behaviors being learned during that time, before the experiment is performed – that might be something to try. The behavior of door button-pushing could even have a cue – just make sure the humans in the experiment don’t know what it is, and couldn’t possibly guess. If a dog is willing to perform a proofed, trained behavior without the cue, then it would seem such behavior indicates a desire or motivation that is overriding the training.


    • Hi Dianne – Yes, I agree. I think that it is extremely difficult to tease out the difference (if there is one; I am not sure that there is) between a behavior that is simply stimulus/response and one that has an internal motivation. For example, new information about how the human brain works tells us that we are less often consciously “deciding” to do something than we actually believe and feel. We are masters at creating back story after an action to explain why we did something, even if the action had a completely different or unconscious trigger. There is no reason to believe that other animals are any different. In other words, it is entirely possible that behaviors caused by complex associations (learning) and the presence of a stimulus (the button in this case) are also triggered by internal motivations of empathy, concern, a need to help. It may be incorrect to assume that these two processes are mutually exclusive (i.e. either the dog is reacting to the stimulus of the button or a command, or the dog is internally motivated, but not both – I ask, why not both?). I think your last point is a great one and would love to see an experiment that tested this! Thanks for writing and for reading! Linda


  6. It might be a good thing to stress that these results do not mean that dogs can understand human language, so that “explaining” to a dog what you need it to do, and how it will get a biscuit if it is a good girl and no supper or walkies otherwise is pointless.


    • Hi Peter – Granted. However, no where in this paper did the researchers make a claim that their results suggested that dogs understand and respond to complex human language (nor did I present their results in a way that suggested that). Thanks for reading!


      • Hi Linda

        True on both counts – but I think that we can agree that people do have a tendency to jump from the tested facts to what they are sure is true, and for which they are desperately seeking evidence.


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