Pets and other animals have a sense of right and wrong

Sunday, August 24, 2008

This ancient mosaic, likely Roman, shows a large dog with a collar hunting a lion. Millennia spent living with humans seem to have enacted a large change in dogs, and (in my opinion) likely cats too.

The name of this article is actually 'dogs have a sense of right and wrong' but I see no reason why it shouldn't apply to other pets as well. It's a subjects I've often thought about as there are huge differences between cats that live with people and those that don't, and my late cat that lived for 20 years even understood humour - not the humour itself but that it was something that humans did, and she developed a kind of indulgent look ("oh, you're making that weird sound again") for whenever I'd be watching a show like the Daily Show and would turn to her whenever it was particularly funny. The question though was whether this is passed down from generation to generation, and it seems to be the case:
Because of the way owners have selected smarter and more empathic dogs down the generations, these pets now appear to have a limited "theory of mind", the capacity that enables us to understand the desires, motivations and intentions of others, New Scientist reports today.
The most interesting part is at the end:

Dr Friederike Range from the University of Vienna, Austria, has found in experiments where one pooch was given a treat and another denied it that dogs possess a sense of fairness too, though she stresses that the data are not yet published.

"Dogs show some aversion to inequity," she says. "I prefer not to call it a sense of fairness, but others might."

Barking is rare among feral dogs, suggesting that it evolved during domestication to allow dogs to communicate with us, says Prof Péter Pongrácz from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. His team has even found a way to use a computer program to understand what dogs are trying to tell us, and can disern whether a pet is barking at a ball, or wants to play with greater accuracy than their owners.

Akiko Takaoka from Kyoto University, Japan, played dogs recordings of unfamiliar voices - both male and female - with each voice followed by a photo of a human face on a screen. If the gender of the face did not match that of the voice, the dogs stared longer, a sign that the image did not match their expectations and yet more evidence that they have been honed to communicate with people.

Meanwhile, Dr Juliane Kaminski at the University of Cambridge has examined how dogs can use human gestures such as pointing and gazing to find hidden food or toys and concludes that dogs do understand that we are trying to tell them something. "Domestication seems to have shaped dogs in a way which enables them to use these gestures from as early as six weeks," she tells New Scientist.

If dogs can learn this much from humans, what are the possibilities with other primates? Pankun is an example of an exceptionally intelligent chimpanzee that enjoys living in pretty much the same way that humans do.


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