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Does Goodness Come Naturally to Dogs?

May 21, 2009 07:30 AM
by Shannon Firth
Will Rogers once famously declared, “If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.” Although researchers aren’t making any claims regarding heaven and hell, some have set out to prove that every dog has a moral compass.

Exploring Canine Psychology

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Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, Boulder, spent weeks analyzing videos of dog, wolf and coyote behavior “frame by frame.” He recorded his findings in his book, “Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals,” and outlined some of his results for The Seattle Times.

According to Bekoff, “Dogs have affection and compassion for their animal and human friends and family. They defend loved ones. They grieve their losses.”

Moreover, he explained to the Times, dogs feel ashamed after making a mistake and jealous when they lose attention to another. He added that dogs are capable of forgiveness, when another person or animal mistreats them.

Also significant, Bekoff noted that dogs understand the concept of “fair play.” He explained, “Big dogs handicap themselves in games with little dogs.”

Writing for Notre Dame Magazine, Jake Page, natural historian and author of “Do Dogs Smile?” explained the significance of this observation: “[It] suggests that [the dog] has a sense of itself and its playmate as different individuals. This is the first step toward the mysterious quality … called consciousness.”

In March, scientists at the University of Vienna corroborated Bekoff’s claims. Through their own research, scientists determined that dogs get jealous, and can feel other so-called secondary emotions including embarrassment, empathy and guilt. Prior to this research, most scientists were under the impression that dogs, although capable of experiencing rage, lust and joy, could not experience more complex emotions.

Detractors argue that the results of current studies, such as Bekoff’s, are “anecdotal and anthropomorphic.”

To gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between humans and dogs, Harvard University opened the Canine Cognition Lab.

In April, Marc Hauser, the university professor who organized the clinic, said he is actively “recruiting all dogs” in the Boston area. In a brief video interview with The Boston Globe he explained that humans and dogs have similar neurochemistry and even take some of the same medicines.

He said, “Everyone has their views about how smart [dogs] are.” The critical question Hauser noted is, “[t]o what extent is an animal that’s really been bred to be with humans capable of some of the same psychological mechanisms.”

Related Topics: Dogs sense cancer, but are they moral?; Can Your Dog Read Your Emotions?

In recent years, studies have shown that dogs may be able to “sniff out” cancer.

According to the BBC, researchers believe that in cases of cancer, epilepsy and other disorders, dogs are “probably smelling a chemical given off by the body,” or they may perceive differences in human behavior. MSNBC reported that dogs are now being taught to identify types of ovarian cancer.

In November, a study from England’s University of Lincoln reported that dogs, like humans, look left toward the right-hand side of human faces, an impulse known as “left gaze bias.

According to the New Scientist, Dr. Kun Guo, who led the research, suggested that this behavior has been adapted after hundreds of years of living with humans as a way to make sense of our emotions; previous studies suggest the right side of the face may display emotions “more accurately and intensely” than the left.
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