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Canines Have a Moral Sense, Says Research

How much are dogs like humans? New research is showing more emotion and intelligence in man’s best friend.

Owners of dogs are often urged against anthropomorphizing their animals. According to some, dog owners infuse their pets with an overwhelming amount of human qualities. It’s always exciting when scientists validate what many dog owners have suspected for years. There is substantial evidence today that dogs possess a sense of justice.

Friederike Range recently led a team of researchers at the University of Vienna, Austria’s Clever Dog Lab, where 29 dogs were tested to see if or how they reacted to inequity.

Testing Dogs’ Reaction to Unfair Treatment

The dogs sat next to each other, facing their experimenters. Each experimenter held a bowl containing treats of bread and sausage. Each dog was able to see the other and what reward was received. The dogs were asked to shake hands for pleasure. When all dogs received their treat, they continued to play. However, if one received a treat and the other did not, the dog, without a reward, stopped playing.

Although some dogs were rewarded with sausage and some with bread, researchers were surprised that they did not seem to care which treat they got, so long as they got something.

Other Measures of Dog Intelligence and Emotion

Dog intelligence has been measured in various ways. For example, a dog trainers’ survey once arranged dog breeds in the order that they most quickly understood new commands and obeyed first commands. The top-ranked breeds understood new commands in less than five repetitions and obeyed new commands 95% of the time or better.

A study at the University of Vienna in Austria had dogs use touch screen computers to show that they could categorize photographs of dogs and landscapes. Other evidence showed that dogs could use logic in learning new words.

More studies indicated that dogs could imitate another dog’s behavior and selectively choose to imitate when they determine it to be appropriate.

Evidence also demonstrates that dogs show a fantastic ability to understand human expressions. For example, experiments by Kun Guo and colleagues from the University of Lincoln, UK, show that dogs exhibit left gaze bias to read human emotions in the face, just as humans do.

More Questions Concerning Dog Behavior

“Animals react to inequity,” concluded Range, adding, “Among other questions, we will investigate how differences in emotions influence cooperative abilities.”

Some dog owners have questioned how these new findings relate to what dog trainers have been teaching for years about treating pets differently because of pack hierarchy within the household. Perhaps dogs, and other animals, are more complicated and possibly more human-like than we ever suspected.