Dogs, Wolves, Us

The New Scientist site is carrying a story headlined, “Dogs aren’t stupid wolves; they are much smarter.” Sadly, the oddly headlined story (“much smarter” than what? stupid wolves? whoa!) is just a come-on for a feature in the print edition of the magazine and only the first paragraphs appear online. But people aren’t stupid subscriber-sheep, and someone somewhere has seen fit to post the entire text of the article in a Usenet group.

The gist of the article is that dogs’ close association with humans over the last 100 centuries or so has endowed them with some “remarkable mental skills.”

“Domestic dogs evolved from grey wolves as recently as 10,000 years ago. Since

then their brains have shrunk, so that a wolf-sized dog has a brain around 10

per cent smaller than its wild ancestor. That was one

reason why animal behaviourists felt dogs were merely simple-minded wolves. It

has become clear, though, that despite the loss of brain volume, thousands of

years spent evolving alongside humans have had a striking effect on dog


“For one thing, researchers are increasingly convinced that dogs must possess

some sense of right and wrong in order to negotiate the complex social world of

people. A pioneer in this area is Marc Bekoff from the University of Colorado at

Boulder, who has spent decades watching animals at play. He has championed the

idea that in many social species, including dogs, one of the functions of

rough-and-tumble play is to develop a rudimentary sense of morality.

“The fact that play rarely escalates into full-blown fighting shows that animals

abide by rules and expect others to do the same. In other words, they know right

from wrong. Bekoff argues that this is a survival adaptation that allows animals

to smoothly navigate other social interactions.

“Friederike Range from the University of Vienna, Austria, takes the concept of

dog morality even further. In a series of experiments, her team rewarded dogs

with a food treat if they held up a paw. They found that when a lone dog was

asked to give its paw but received no treat, it would persevere for the entire

experiment, which lasted 30 repetitions. However, if they tested two dogs

together but only rewarded one, the dog who missed out would make a big show of

being denied its treat and stop cooperating after just a few rounds. ‘Dogs show

a strong aversion to inequity,’ says Range. ‘I prefer not to call it a sense of

fairness, but others might.’ ”

Fascinating. I don’t know how the resident dog in these parts comes down on the fairness question. But he has shown a strong disapproval of profanity, which he no doubt has observed is associated with human emotional states he has no desire to be around.

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