Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Dogs with a moral compass, telling right from wrong

In the last week, there's been an interesting article in The Telegraph looking at different pieces of research about doggy thinking. One controversial piece claims to show that not only are we right in ascribing intelligence to our dogs, it's entirely possible Fido has a sense of right and wrong.

A New Scientist report suggests that, through breeding practices which have both consciously and subconsciously favoured smarter and more empathetic dogs, dogs have developed a "theory of mind", or capacity for empathy. Remember the yawn research that already hinted at that?

We do have a tendency to anthorpomorphise our pets, which can be a harmless expression of love but can also lead to harm (for instance, when dogs are fed only inappropriate human food and become ill and overweight). As a result, scientists have been wary of research that shows typically human qualities in animals.

One new study aims to shatter that caution. Presented at the Canine Science Forum in Budapest, Hungary, the work of a team from the University of Vienna, led by Professor Ludwig Huber, put dogs through a canine version of a classic experiment conducted with children. In the human version, an instructor demonstrates to a child how to turn off a light using her forehead, either with her hands visible or with them wrapped in a shawl. Toddlers shown the second example invariably used their hands to turn off the light when asked to do so, whereas those shown the first used their heads; the standard interpretation is that while the hands are exposed there must be another, non-obvious reason to use the head, and therefore it's wiser to do so. The canine version used levers and rewards.

That explains the evidence of the "theory of mind" but what about the moral compass? Well, that's where the University of Colorado's Professor Marc Bekoff comes in. He claims that restraint shown in play-fighting, which rarely escalates into a serious tussle, shows that animals have rules and expect to interact in a regulated society where others obey them too.

For more about this and other theories of dog thought and intelligence, do read the full article. What do you think? Do your dogs demonstrate moral restraint and reasoning intelligence? We'd love to hear your thoughts!

Thanks to our Shiny friends for the tip!

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