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How much does your dog love you? Not enough to feed you, a new study reveals

How much does your dog love you? Dog being fed by woman
(Image credit: Getty Images)

When it comes to the question of ‘how much does your dog love you?’ we reckon it’s a safe bet to say a whole heck of a lot! But before your heart goes all warm and fuzzy, there’s one situation where they might not be so keen to go the extra mile for you - and that’s when it comes to paying you back after you’ve fed them.

Numerous studies have shown that dogs will return favors to other dogs in the form of gifting them food, will help their owners when they’re in trouble, and can distinguish between helpful and unhelpful people. 

Based on this previous research, comparative psychologist Jim McGetrick thought there was a high chance that dogs would happily reciprocate a good deed done by their humans. But McGetrick and his team at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna were in for a surprise when their experiment didn’t quite play out the way they thought it would.

Training pet dogs to use a button that would enable them to access food from a dispenser, McGetrick placed each pup in an enclosure and a human they didn’t know in another enclosure that was visible to the dog. The scenario was repeated in two different ways.

The first time, each dog watched as the stranger pressed a button that released food into the dog’s enclosure. On the second run-through, the people were swapped out and a new stranger was brought into the human enclosure who didn’t press the button.

McGetrick and his team then repeated the exercise, giving the dog’s the opportunity to offer food to the same two human partners they’d worked with in the previous scenarios. He was surprised to discover that the dogs were no more likely to press the button to provide food to the helpful human than they were to the stingy one. When asked why this might be, McGetrick has a theory:

“In terms of dog domestication and the evolution of dogs as a species, their cooperativeness with humans might not be related to this form of cooperation: this reciprocal cooperation, where I help you and then you help me at some point in the future,” he says.

McGetrick is quick to stress that just because the dogs didn’t reciprocate in the experiment, it doesn’t rule out reciprocity by dogs with humans. 

“I’m not sure that the dogs understood that another individual was helping them,” he explains. “It seemed they certainly saw the human. But even if the dogs look, they might see the human’s face, they might see the human’s hand pressing the button, but they might never register that, “Oh, that’s how I’m getting the food,” or “Oh, the human is doing something for me.” It’s very difficult to know what they understand about the situation.”

The fact that the dogs didn’t know the humans involved may also have come into play, with McGetrick stating that more research is needed to see if they would reciprocate with a human they know well. 

Kathryn is a freelance writer who has spent the past two years dividing her writing time between her two great loves - pets and health and wellness. When she’s not busy crafting the perfect sentence for her features, buying guides and news pieces, she can be found hanging out with one very mischievous Cocker Spaniel, drinking copious amounts of Jasmine tea and attempting to set numerous world records for the longest ever FaceTime calls with her family back home in NZ.