The human urge to lend a hand extends to animals from the earliest years of life, according to researchers who observed toddlers interacting with friendly dogs.
Children as young as two years old went out of their way to help dogs get toys and tasty treats that were placed beyond their reach, despite never having met the animals before, scientists found.
The work suggests that toddlers could not only understand the dogs’ desires, but were willing and able to help them out, even though the chances of the dogs returning the favour were vanishingly small.
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Writing in the journal Human-Animal Interactions, the scientists describe how toddlers were twice as likely to hand over unreachable toys and treats when dogs showed an interest in them, for example, by whimpering or pawing after the items. The children helped in half of all instances when dogs wanted the objects, but only in a quarter of cases when the animals showed no interest.
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“It’s been known for a long time that toddlers will go out of their way to help struggling humans, even strangers,” said Prof Henry Wellman, a senior author on the study at the University of Michigan. But it was unclear whether humans evolved such altruism only towards other people, who might help back, and not other species. The study shows “it applies to other animals too”, Wellman said, “like dogs they will never see again”.