Does Man's Best Friend Really Give a Damn?
An Animal Rights Article from


Stephen Cauchi on
July 2009

Do dogs really care about anything other than wolfing down their nightly meal? The oft-asked question of whether or not dogs can empathize with other animals and humans appeared to have been answered last month when renowned animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff confirmed what most dog owners believe: canines do possess a moral compass.

Tiffani Howell with her Weimaraner, Silver. "She knows when I'm feeling happy."
Photo/Craig Sillitoe

Emeritus Professor Bekoff, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, said he and a "new breed of behavioral experts" believed that dogs had the ability to experience many emotions, from guilt to jealousy, remorse to grief.

"We're not trying to elevate animals," he said. "We're not trying to reduce humans. We're not saying we're better or worse or the same. We're saying we're not alone in having a nuanced moral system."

But it seems a large contingent of behavioral experts do not share Professor Bekoff's certainty. They, along with the professor, will present their theories and research into how dogs think at next month's Minding Animals conference in Newcastle, NSW.

Researchers from Barnard College, in New York, will present the findings of tests to determine if dogs can empathize. In the test, owners ordered their dogs not to eat a tasty treat, then left the room. Some dogs ate the treat, others didn't but the researchers deliberately told the owners the opposite of what their dogs did. Owners led to believe their dogs had eaten the treat then scolded their pets.

The researchers found that the dogs that had been obedient and not eaten the treat but who had been scolded looked more "guilty" than those who had disobeyed. They concluded that the dogs were simply reacting to the angry faces of their owners, rather than feeling the emotion of guilt.

Researchers at Monash University's psychology department are conducting a similar experiment. Two people will be in a room one acting happy, the other sad and researchers will note whether dogs entering the room gravitate to one or the other. The aim is to establish if dogs can recognize emotion.

Monash PhD student Tiffani Howell, who is participating in the experiment with her Weimaraner bitch Silver, said it was debatable whether animals could recognize emotion, let alone show empathy and act morally.

"We haven't even established scientifically if dogs can recognize emotions in humans," she said. "If we establish something like that, then we can move on and try to look closely at the possibility of empathy but that's really a complex issue."

Professor Bekoff says dogs are empathetic animals, like humans.

His recently released book, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals , examines cases where caged rats won't push a lever for food if it gives the rat in the next cage an electric shock; where vampire bats will share the blood they collect with bats who can't hunt; where elephants in a herd will slow down and feed a fellow elephant with a leg injury; where dogs will ostracize a fellow dog who's playing too roughly clear cases of animal morality, he says.

Ms Howell said her dog "knows when I'm feeling happy, she knows when I'm feeling sad".

"I wouldn't say she responds accordingly she's not one of those sympathetic dogs who gives me a lick on the cheek when I'm crying but she definitely knows when I'm calm or excited she responds accordingly then," Ms Howell said.

But, she said, Silver's behavior was not scientific evidence of recognizing emotion, or empathy, which she said was "the ability to feel what another person is feeling And we have no evidence that dogs are capable of that".

Ms Howell's supervisor, senior lecturer Pauleen Bennett, said it had been assumed that chimpanzees were the animals most likely to mimic human behavior, but "it turns out that dogs are better at some things than chimpanzees are Dogs are top of the list in terms of understanding humans, they're very, very good at it. Whether they're good at reading human emotions that's the thing we're going to try and test," she said.

Andrea Griffin, from Newcastle University's school of psychology, said she was a skeptic of animal empathy. "An animal that watches an animal that's really scared will become scared, but that's because it's a contagious effect. It's very different from the empathy in that sense of, I feel for you. It's a reflex."

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