Can Dogs Detect Generosity?

Can dogs judge human beings’ social behavior? What human social cues do dogs learn from? Scientists try to figure out what clues dogs use to tell generous people from stingy ones.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #167

Can Dogs Detect Generosity?

by Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Can dogs tell which people are generous and which ones are stingy? I can hear you now: “Of course they can – why else has Zippy spent every family dinner gazing wistfully up at Aunt Trudy ever since the first time she accidentally-on-purpose dropped a piece of roast in front of him?”

But it’s one thing to learn that someone who shares their food with you once may do it again. An animal needs a different set of skills to figure out whether a complete stranger is generous, just by watching how she acts toward yet another stranger. In testing whether dogs can judge a person’s generosity this way, we can learn something about their ability to read human social behavior..

The Experiment

“Eavesdropping” – how animals observe and take advantage of other animals’ behavior – is a hot scientific topic. Animals of all kinds eavesdrop in various ways. They observe when others have used up all the resources in a particular spot; they notice where competitors have stored food, and then they steal it; they flee when they hear alarm calls from a different species. That last kind of eavesdropping, in which animals of one species “read” the social signals passed between members of another species, is especially remarkable. We know that dogs are sensitive to human body language when it’s directed toward them; can they also learn from the signals we humans pass to each other?

Sarah Marshall-Pescini and her colleagues at the University of Milan designed a way to tease out some answers. To start the experiment, each dog’s owner sat in a chair with the dog on leash. Two people came in, people the dog didn’t know. Each person carried a bowl with two compartments – cereal in one compartment, sausage in the other – and let the dog check out the bowl, but didn’t let the dog eat.

The strangers then sat down and started eating the cereal. Now a third stranger came in. She came up to each researcher, knelt, looked inside the food bowl, and tapped the researcher’s arm. The “selfish” researcher sternly said no and flicked her hand at the beggar. The “generous” researcher said “Have it,” using a friendly tone, and put a little cereal in the beggar’s mouth. The beggar repeated this process several times with each researcher. You can watch a video here; I’m sure the researchers had washed their hands before starting the experiment.

Ghosts, Voices, and Gestures

The researchers also set up three variations on the scenario. In the “ghost” version, the experimenters did and said all the same things, but there was no actual beggar. This was to check whether, if the dogs avoided the selfish person, they were doing so specifically because of her interaction with the beggar, or because she acted harsh and stern in general. In the “voice” version, the selfish and generous people talked to the beggar but didn’t gesture at her or feed her. And in the “gesture” version, the selfish and generous people didn’t speak, but the selfish person physically shoved the beggar away.

Then came the last part of the experiment – the actual test. The selfish and generous people sat quietly, holding the food bowls on their laps. Each dog was allowed to move around freely for 20 seconds, but the people with the food bowls didn’t engage with the dogs, not even to look at them. Whom would the dogs approach, if anyone? Would it make a difference whether the dogs saw a real beggar, or whether there was no beggar? Did the dogs depend more on the strangers’ voices, or on their body English?

The Results

The findings were almost what you might expect – but with a couple of twists. The dogs who watched the selfish and generous people speak to the beggar and also gesture at her or feed her definitely spent more time with the generous person than with the selfish one. So they could tell from what went on between the people which of the strangers was a better bet for scoring food.

The dogs who only heard the selfish and generous people speak didn’t pay significantly more attention to the generous person during a first test run, but by the third test run they did focus significantly on the generous person. So it seems as if talking alone didn’t convey information to the dogs as clearly as talk plus gestures did, but that given repeats, the dogs figured out what was going on.

To me, the surprising results came with the “gestures” group, where the selfish and generous strangers didn’t talk, but the selfish person shoved the beggar, and with the “ghost” group, where the selfish and generous strangers only pretended there was a beggar.

“Ghost” group first. The dogs who watched that scenario did not spend significantly more time with the stranger who behaved generously toward an invisible beggar. So it looks as if the dogs not only got information from the interaction between the people, but needed to see the interaction, to easily figure out which stranger was generous. Just hearing the voice and seeing the gestures, without a real person there, didn’t cut it.

What about the gestures group, where the selfish person physically shoved the beggar away? I’d have expected that the dogs would stay the heck away from a stranger who shoved somebody. But no – they didn’t avoid the shoving stranger or spend more time with the other stranger. What’s up with that?

What it Means For You and Your Dog

I read the study several times, and unless I’m missing something, the authors don’t suggest an explanation. We can speculate, though! Here’s my guess: Dogs accepted into these cognition studies have to be comfortable in unfamiliar situations and with unfamiliar people – in short, they need to be friendly and confident. That’s exactly the kind of dog I would expect to politely investigate a person who had behaved strangely. It’s even conceivable that some dogs perceived the shove as rough play. Dogs apparently can read signals we humans direct toward each other – but they don’t read them perfectly.

These articles are all supposed to give you practical advice about your dog. This time, I’ll just make a point that’s one of my running themes: Our delightful, sociable, hairy friends may be familiar, but the answers to our questions about them often lead us to … more questions. Next time you hear some guru claiming to know everything there is to know about dogs, bear that in mind.

You can visit me on Facebook, where I’m The Dog Trainer, and follow me on Twitter as Dogalini. Or write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I really appreciate your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thanks for reading – now don’t go shove any strangers!

S. Marshall-Pescini, C. Passalacqua, A. Ferrario, P. Valsecchi, E. Prato-Previde, “Social Eavesdropping in the Domestic Dog,” Animal Behaviour 81 (2011): 1177-1183.

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About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).