What Motivates Dogs To Help Humans?

Pet lovers would do just about anything for a furry friend. From a cool bowl of water to a loving, forever home, we are happy to give our pets whatever they need. It seems like the opposite is true too! Do you have a dog that fetches the paper every morning or gives the best cuddles when you're sad? We've also all heard stories about a dog heroically saving a human in need. Dogs have a knack for giving humans just as much love (and help) as we give them. What is it exactly that motivates a dog to help a human? Let's investigate!

German shepherd jumping into water
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What are the four types of helping behavior?

Some dogs are extremely friendly and sociable. They get along with not only their owners, but also family friends and strangers. These dogs are eager to play, which makes them perfect candidates for being helpful dogs. However, even dogs that are not the most sociable have the capacity to help.

Scientists categorize different types of help into four different groups: comforting, sharing, informing, and "instrumental helping," which is physically doing something to aid another individual. There is anecdotal evidence that dogs are great at comforting and informing. They can sense your emotions and act accordingly as well as inform you or alert you of danger.

Service dog pushing button for elevator with a man in a wheelchair
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Scientists are not sure if dogs help humans naturally or if the behavior is learned.

Juliane Bräuer, Katja Schönefeld, and Josep Call of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzip, Germany conducted a study to shed some light on the issue. Do dogs exhibit instrumental helping towards humans even without special training? They hypothesized that dogs are willing to help, but only if they clearly understand the human's goal.

The researchers set up a miniature room made of clear Plexiglas without a roof. The dogs tested were domesticated and trained to push a button that would open the door to the room. When there was a treat inside the room that the dogs could see, they pressed the button with ease to retrieve their treat. Sometimes, instead of a treat, keys were placed in the box. Because the keys were of no interest to the dogs, they didn't press the button.

Dog waiting to get delicious treat outdoors.
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Next, a human who was a stranger to the dog needed help to open the target door to get the keys. The experimenter performed three separate actions to express their need for help.

  1. They stared into the room through the target door.
  2. They moved towards the door then pushed and shook it.
  3. They reached for the key above the door.

In other conditions, the experimenter looked directly at the dog and then back at the keys. Some experimenters were instructed to say phrases like, "Oh, where is my key?" "How can I get it?"

When a treat was involved, the dogs pressed the button 90 percent of the time for their own self-interest. When the human experimenter needed help, the dogs pushed the button for them about one third of the time.

MORE: What Makes A Dog Notice A Person?

Researchers conducted the experiment again but had experimenters point to the button. Under these conditions, dogs helped the humans over 50 percent of the time — concluding that the clearer the need is communicated, the more likely the dog is to help.

In the last the experiment, humans were allowed to be as direct as possible with their need. They could say the dog's name, bend down, reach for the key and point to the key. They could say the following sentences: "Open the door! Have a look! I want my key! Where is my key? How do I get there?" During this final experiment, the dog's helped experimenters about 90 percent of the time for either their owner or a stranger!

Man with dog
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It is still unclear if dog's naturally want to help humans or if this is just a reaction to behavioral coaching. What is clear is that a human's need must be obvious to the dog in order for him to help. The more confident the dog is in knowing what you need, the more likely he is to lend a helping paw.