Children and Dogs Are Designed to Help One Another
A few summers ago, I took one of my sons to a remote part of British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains. As we were nearing the summit of a peak, I noticed two mountain goats following us. At the summit, my son and I began to eat our lunch. My son saw the two goats come up to us and presumed that they wanted us to share our lunch with them. I explained that the goats were not begging. They didn’t want our lunch, but they definitely wanted to hang out with us. They stayed throughout our lunch and even for part of our descent. I took a photo (figure 1) of one of the two mountain goats while we were eating our lunch.
Wild birds and mammals that have never been abused by humans manifest how God created them for fellowship with humans. According to Genesis 1:21, 24, birds and mammals are nephesh creatures. God endowed the nephesh animals with a desire to emotionally relate to humans and to serve and please us. We tame these animals to become personal pets and domesticate them to perform service for us.
God designed the relationships between humans and nephesh animals to be mutualistic. That is, just as the nephesh animals relate to, serve, and please humans, so, too, God designed humans to relate to nephesh animals and to serve and please them.
Human-Animal Relationship Experiment
The extent and complexity of relationships between humans and nephesh animals has caught the attention of research scientists. The journal Human–Animal Interactions is dedicated to exploring these relationships. A paper published a month ago by an interdisciplinary team led by Duke University’s Rachna Reddy sought to determine whether humans inherently possess the desire to relate to and to serve and please nephesh animals or if these qualities develop over time through training and education.
Reddy’s team conducted experiments on young children and domesticated dogs. They wanted to determine if children—at the youngest age that they are capable of helping dogs—will spontaneously help dogs or if this behavior must be learned through training and education. They studied 97 children ranging in age from 1.7 to 3.1 years old: 51 female, and 46 male. Of these 97 children, 44 had pet dogs at home and 53 did not. An initial study of children in the age range 1.1–1.6 years showed that typically they were overstimulated in the presence of a dog and were unable to discern its needs or to help the dog. Reddy’s team also eliminated children from their study who were allergic to or highly fearful of dogs.
Reddy and her colleagues set up an experiment to determine whether, in a naturalistic encounter with friendly dogs, young children would help dogs to access a desired out-of-reach toy or food treat. They placed each child in an enclosed pen with one of three dogs (figure 2). One of the researchers would accidentally drop a toy or food treat so that it was out of reach for the dog but in reach for the child.
Of the 236 experiments where the dog showed some visible interest in the toy or food treat, children gave it to the dog in 118 (50%) cases. In the 102 experiments where the dog ignored the toy or food treat, the children gave it to the dog in 27 (26%) cases. Reddy’s team noted slightly more positive outcomes when the dog was highly engaged with the child or when the child had a pet dog at home. They also observed that the children attempted to engage the dog even when the dog was passive. All the children were particularly motivated to give the dog a food treat.
Reddy’s team noted that other experiments demonstrate that the spontaneous help they observed in young children toward animals also operates in reverse. Juvenile chimpanzees have been observed to help their human caretakers access out-of-reach objects that were difficult for the humans to reach.2
Conclusions from the Experiments
The research team concluded that children as young as 1.7–3.1 years old have a well-developed theory of mind and a motivation to behave prosocially toward others. In this case, “others” refers to humans and nephesh animals. Theory of mind is a neuropsychology term that refers to the ability to infer others’ mental states, including emotions, beliefs, goals, desires, and knowledge. Prosocial behavior is another psychological term that refers to the motivation to help others reach goals and fulfill their desires.
As Harvard University psychologist Felix Warneken observed in his studies, young children are precociously prosocial, that is, eager to help others.3 Reddy’s team showed that this eagerness in young children to help extends to dogs and that it is spontaneous. No training is needed.
It doesn’t take a Harvard psychologist to recognize how profoundly and precociously prosocial young children are. Two of my most cherished memories are when I held each of my sons in my arms just seconds after they were born. Joel’s eyes intently studied every part of my face, head, and neck. His philosopher-artist-introvert personality was evident right away. When I held David right after his birth, he reached out with his hands to feel every part of me that he could. He uttered sounds that melted my heart. He immediately expressed his entertainer-psychologist-extrovert personality.
Today, Joel has a reputation as an animal whisperer. I could see that characteristic in him when he was just five months old. He was in an infant bouncy chair on the living room floor of my cousins’ home on Vancouver Island. Their two Lhasa apso dogs, the first dogs he had ever encountered, almost immediately began to romp with Joel, much to his delight.
The Bible declares that God created human beings so that they can experience and express fellowship and love. The research by Reddy’s team adds to the accumulating scientific evidence that humans are designed to experience and express fellowship and love with one another, with God, and with the nephesh animals at the highest levels permitted by the laws of physics. Their research affirms the declarations in Genesis 1 that we humans are uniquely created in the image of God.
- Rachna B. Reddy et al., “Do Children Help Dogs Spontaneously?” CABI Digital Library: Human–Animal Interactions (January 16, 2023), doi:10.1079/hai.2023.0001.
- Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, “Altruistic Helping in Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees,” Science 311, no. 5765 (March 3, 2006): 1301–1303, doi:10.1126/science.1121448.
- Felix Warneken, “Precocious Prosociality: Why Do Young Children Help?” Child Development Perspectives 9, no. 1 (March 2015): 1–6, doi:10.1111/cdep.12101.