Toddlers instinctively bond with dogs, willing to help get treats

January 18, 2023
Child and German Shepherd, Image credit: Image by Nicole Miranda,

Toddlers will go out of their way to help dogs, especially pups struggling to access out-of-reach treats and toys, according to research conducted at the University of Michigan.

The new study shows that young children notice and understand dogs’ goals, using that knowledge to help them.

“It’s been known for a long time that toddlers will go out of their way to help struggling humans, even strangers,” said study co-author Henry Wellman, the Harold W. Stevenson Collegiate Professor Emeritus of Psychology at U-M.

“But perhaps such altruism is specially evolved for and targeted toward other humans (who after all might help them back). But no, it applies to other animals too, like dogs they will never see again.”

Wellman and colleagues conducted experiments with three dogs—Fiona, Henry and Seymour—at U-M’s child laboratory between 2015 and 2020 to determine if young children spontaneously helped a pet.

The researchers studied 97 children (51 girls and 46 boys) ages 2 and 3 years, 44 of whom had dogs as pets. In the lab, the children met one of the friendly dogs in an enclosed baby gate fence while a treat or toy was placed outside it. Dogs reacted naturally, either showing interest (either pawing or begging) in accessing the item or ignoring it.

Children provided dogs with out-of-reach items 50% of the time when dogs showed interest rather than ignored items, indicating sensitivity to the dog’s goals, the study showed.

In addition, children who lived with pet dogs were more likely to provide items to the pups in the experiment if two scenarios were present: the dogs were lively and engaged rather than subdued, and if the item was a treat rather than a toy.

“These findings lend support to our hypothesis that children’s early-developing proclivities for goal-reading and prosociality extend beyond humans to other animals,” said U-M alumna Rachna Reddy, the study’s lead author and postdoctoral fellow in evolutionary anthropology at Duke University.

The researchers believe children’s willingness to help goes beyond dogs; it likely extends to cats, birds, horses, pigs, ducks, sheep and more. But demonstrating that will take future research, Wellman said.

Study co-authors also included U-M alumni Margaret Echelbarger, Natalie Toomajian and Taeah Hammond. The study is published in the journal Human-Animal Interactions.