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We all know that humans have a special connection with dogs, but did you know that this connection may have helped us thrive as a species? According to a recent study, the human urge to lend a hand to animals begins in our earliest years. Researchers observed toddlers interacting with friendly dogs and found that even children as young as two years old were willing and able to help the dogs get toys and treats placed beyond their reach, despite never having met the animals before.
The study suggests that toddlers understand the dogs’ desires and are motivated to help them, even though the chances of the dogs returning the favor are slim. “It’s extraordinary to see how early this begins,” said Dr. Rachna Reddy, an evolutionary anthropologist and lead author of the study. “From early in our development, we have tendencies to behave prosocially towards other people, to try to understand what’s going on in their minds,” she said. “This study shows that even toddlers “have the motivation and the ability to extend this kind of helping behavior to other animals.”
This friendly behavior towards other species helped humans thrive worldwide. Selfless acts, such as leaving food out for animals, could have underpinned practices that led to the domestication of species from dogs and cats to cows, pigs, sheep, and horses. “Animals domestication was advantageous to human survival. It enabled us to live and thrive; there’s a huge evolutionary benefit,” said Reddy.
The researchers recruited 97 toddlers between 20 and 47 months and watched them interact with three child-friendly dogs at the University of Michigan’s child lab. In the experiments, researchers dropped toys or snacks just beyond the dog’s reach on the toddler’s side of a fence that separated the two. The study found that 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.
This study provides new insight into the human-animal bond and how it has shaped our evolution. By understanding how we interact with animals, we can work towards a more sustainable future for all species. We can all play a role in this by supporting animal welfare organizations, adopting a plant-based diet, and being mindful of our environmental impact.
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