A New Study Says Your Dog’s Secretly Kind of a Selfish Jerk

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Photo: Dan Burn-Forti/Getty Images

“Best friend” is not a title to be thrown around lightly. A best friendship is a big deal — it comes with certain expectations, certain responsibilities. It’s something to be earned. And if we’re being honest, it kiiiiind of seems like man’s best friend is falling down on the job.

Look, I love dogs as much as the next person, but let’s consider the evidence: They hate hugs. In one 2006 study, when people faked heart attacks and other dangerous situations in front of their dogs, not a single one ran to a nearby bystander for help. And most recently, as Emily Benson reported in New Scientist today, new research shows that despite their eager-to-please reputation, they’re a tad self-absorbed.

In a study in the journal PLoS One, researchers ran an experiment with 24 dogs, leaving a toy in one corner of the lab and placing other items elsewhere in the room, all in full view of their canine subjects. Some of the objects were things the dog had previously observed them using, like a notebook, and others were new, like a stapler. The idea was to see which object the dog would be drawn toward — whether they’d focus on a) the notebook (helpful), b) the toy (selfish), or c) the stapler (neither here nor there).

Given the premium we tend to place on the human-canine bond, it’s easy to hope for a) the notebook — to hope that the dogs would lead the scientists, Lassie-style, toward the thing they’ve lost. But “when the notebook user returned and searched for the ‘lost’ notepad, the pooches indicated the dog toy more often than the notebook or stapler,” Benson wrote.” And when the dogs did indicate the location of the other objects, they weren’t any better at pointing out the thing the human cared about — the notebook — than the unimportant stapler.”

To some scientists, the results weren’t exactly surprising. “Does the dog take an interest in an object that a human is interested in, or only in objects that dogs are interested in?” Cline Wynne, an animal behaviorist at Arizona State University who was unaffiliated with the study, told New Scientist. “That got a clear-cut result: dogs only like objects that dogs like.” Another alternative, Benson noted, is that the animals just didn’t understand how to be helpful in this situation. Either way, if I ever fall down a well or something, I’ll keep my expectations low.