Biology

Study: Dogs understand fair play, and not because of humans

Study: Dogs understand fair pl...
The testing setup, in which one dog (or wolf) can see another getting more or better treats
The testing setup, in which one dog (or wolf) can see another getting more or better treats
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The study included both wolves and domestic dogs, all of which were similarly raised in packs
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The study included both wolves and domestic dogs, all of which were similarly raised in packs
The testing setup, in which one dog (or wolf) can see another getting more or better treats
2/2
The testing setup, in which one dog (or wolf) can see another getting more or better treats

Studies have already indicated that dogs have a sense of inequity – they know when another dog is receiving preferential treatment, and they consider that to be unfair. Many scientists have assumed that this is a result of domestication. A new study shows that wolves react in the same way, however, suggesting that the behavior originates with a common ancient ancestor.

Led by comparative psychologists Jennifer Essler, Friederike Range and Sarah Marshall-Pescini, the study was conducted at the Messerli Research Institute of the University of Veterinary Medicine, in Vienna. It included both wolves and domestic dogs, all of which were similarly raised in packs.

The animals were trained to press a button with their paw when told to do so by a trainer, in exchange for a treat. Sometimes, however, the canine being tested didn't get a treat, while a partner animal visible in an adjacent enclosure did. Other times, while the test subject did get a treat, it was clearly inferior to the one given to its partner.

The study included both wolves and domestic dogs, all of which were similarly raised in packs
The study included both wolves and domestic dogs, all of which were similarly raised in packs

In both cases, with both the dogs and the wolves, the unfairly-treated animals soon refused to continue pressing the button. They kept cooperating with the trainer when receiving the same treatment without a partner present, though, suggesting that what they really didn't like was the fact that another canine was getting rewards that they weren't.

Interestingly – and perhaps not surprisingly – the dogs and wolves that ranked highest within their packs stopped cooperating sooner. This was presumably because they were less used to getting the short end of the stick, so to speak.

Additionally, after the sessions were over, the unfairly-treated wolves were more aloof to both their partners and the trainers, than were the dogs. According to the researchers, this suggests that the domestication of dogs actually makes them less sensitive to feelings of inequity, instead of it being the cause of those feelings.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Current Biology.

Source: University of Veterinary Medicine

3 comments
DmitriNosovicki
It would be very interesting to know whether animals have concept of fairness (vs. feeling of such). For example, change of attitude towards treated inequally from animal-observer.
Martin Winlow
"...the dogs and wolves that ranked highest within their packs stopped cooperating sooner. This was presumably because they were less used to getting the short end of the stick..." Or more to do with these individuals being more intelligent/stronger - hence their dominant pack position, I would have thought a more likely explanation.
@DmitriNosovicki - 'Fairness' is what the article is talking about, surely?
Or you could interpret it as 'trust' and it comes as no surprise to me to hear of the findings from this research as all animals will do better if they work together - the 'pack mentality' and/or 'safety in numbers'. It's a shame humans haven't all quite figured this out yet!
amazed W1
Maybe I'm stupid, but having read the artcle 3 or 4 times, I don't understand how this experiment distinguishes betweeen a sense of fairness on one hand, and on the other hand the normal human child and dog's instinct to try to eat the "partner's" food as well as their own. Evolution of successful pack animals, like dogs and humans, would ensure that those animals that did not modify their infant/puppy behaviour as adults, would soon out of the pack with all its advantages or simply be killed by the other pack members.
Or did the experimental result disappears when the partner is not there because there is no treat offered to the non-existent partner?