Growing up with a pet can have many benefits for children beyond just having a playmate. They can help children learn, with a study finding children are more relaxed when they read to a dog rather than a peer or an adult. They can decrease the risk of developing asthma in children and also help children become more affectionate.

But why do young children react to animals in certain ways?

A study published on January 15 in the journal Human-Animal Interactions offers insight into whether toddlers impulsively help dogs in certain scenarios.

[Related: The National Institutes of Health is studying dogs to learn more about aging and genetics in people.]

With the help of three friendly dogs named Fiona, Henry and Seymour, a team studied how 97 toddlers (51 girls and 46 boys) between the ages of two and three interacted with them in certain situations, including helping a dog to reach for a treat or toy.

Toddlers can be wired to help their dog friends
Fiona, Henry and Seymour from the study experience. CREDIT: Duke University.

In half of the events, toddlers gave dogs a treat and an out-of-reach toy after a dog tried and failed to get it himself. In contrast, the children offered the dogs items that had previously been ignored by the canids only 26% of the time.

The team found that children were also twice as likely to help a dog reach for a toy or treat if the dog was interested in them. They also found that more lively dogs were also more likely to receive help, and children helped dogs get treats rather than toys.

“These findings support our hypothesis that children’s early inclinations toward goal reading and prosociality extend beyond humans to other animals,” said co-author and research director Rachna Reddy, postdoctoral fellow in evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, in a statement.

[Related: Humans have trouble anticipating aggressive behavior in man’s best friend.]

As expected, according to the researchers, having a dog in the home (44 of the children came from homes with dogs) increased the likelihood of a child helping. They also found that more engaged dogs and the out-of-reach object being food rather than a toy also increased the likelihood of children helping.

“From many perspectives, children’s propensity to attribute desires and goals to pet dogs during real-life, in-person interactions is not surprising,” Reddy said. “However, we have observed from the age of 2 years that children behave in ways that show that they are not only able to read behavior directed by another animal, but that they can and do use this knowledge to help an animal achieve its own goal.

According to Reddy, these early childhood behaviors may have important evolutionary significance.

Future studies are needed to examine other psychological components of instrumental helping, including what emotions underlie a child’s motivation to help dogs, how culture and cognition shape these motivations, and how these processes change. as a child grows.

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