Understanding the moral lives of animals can be mysterious and challenging. There is still much we don’t know about how they perceive the actions of others, including ours. Do our dogs make moral judgements? Do they understand concepts such as altruism and selfishness? While we don’t yet have the answers, there are some intriguing studies that attempt to explore these concepts.
One example is a 2015 study at Kyoto University that aimed to look at how dogs perceive sharing. In the first experiment, dogs watched a scene in which a person was trying to open a can. When they weren’t able to, they asked another person for help. In some trials, the second person would help, while in others they would refuse. Sometimes a third person was present, who would be neutral and do nothing at all.
During the second experiment, the dogs watched two people turn up with three balls each. The first person would ask the other to give them all their balls. The second person would agree and hand them over. They would then ask them to be given back. In some instances, the first person would return the balls. In other instances, they would refuse. A bit like a conflicted game of fetch!
So, what did the researchers learn? At the end of each experiment, those involved in the trials offered the dog a treat at the same time. In every scenario, dogs were happy to take a treat from the helpful or neutral person, but were reluctant to receive a treat from those they saw acting “selfishly.” Which just goes to show, we should be on our best behavior around our dogs! In fact, the researchers suggested that dogs may make social judgments in very similar ways to human infants.
Dogs are masters of observation – they are constantly studying us and the world around them for clues and information. This skill allows them to live successfully alongside us and helps to keep them safe. So, don’t forget – your dog is always watching!