Scientific American recently published a special collector's edition devoted to the latest scientific discoveries regarding mankind's best friends: the dog and cat.
In this publication, Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, opines in an article titled The Ethical Dog" that the roots of human morality may be found in dogs.
Beckoff observes how adept canines are at learning "house rules" - and how groveling brings them back into our good graces after a rule is broken. While studying the canine sense of right and wrong, Beckoff discovered behaviors that hint at morality, altruism, tolerance, forgiveness, reciprocity and fairness.
These characteristics are evident in the way dogs play with one another. Dogs follow a code of conduct when they play that teaches them the rules of social engagement. Play builds trust, which enables divisions of labor, cooperation in hunting, raising young and defending food and territory. This social organization may offer a glimpse of the moral code that allowed our ancestral societies to flourish.
When dogs play, they engage in behaviors (biting, mounting, body slamming) that could easily be misinterpreted. Through years of video analyses, Bekoff discovered dogs follow four rules to prevent play from escalating into fighting.
Communication: Dogs announce that they want to play by crouching on their forelimbs while standing on their hind legs. Bows are used almost exclusively during play sending the message "Play with me." Even when a bow comes with bared teeth, growling or biting, dogs trust the message that whatever follows is meant in fun. Trust in communication is vital for a smoothly functioning society.
Manners: Dogs consider their play partners' abilities and engage in self-handicapping and role reversals to create equal footing. For instance, a dog might not bite her partner as hard as she could just to keep things fair. A dominant pack member might roll over to let her lower-status partner take a turn at "winning." Human children behave this way by taking turns overpowering each other in mock wrestling matches. By keeping things fair, every member of the group can play with every other member, building bonds that keep the group cohesive and strong.
Contrition: Even when everyone wants to play fair, things can get out of hand. When a dog accidentally hurts his partner, he apologizes. After an intense bite, a bow sends the message, "I'm sorry I bit you so hard. Don't leave; I'll play fair." For play to continue, the other dog must forgive the wrongdoer. Forgiveness is almost always offered; understanding and tolerance are abundant
during play and daily pack life.
Honesty: An apology, like an invitation to play, must be sincere. Individuals who play unfairly or send dishonest signals are quickly ostracized. This has greater consequences than simply reduced playtime. Bekoff's research shows that juvenile coyotes who don't play fair often leave their pack and are four times more likely to die than individuals who remain with the pack. Violating social norms, established during play, is not good for perpetuating one's genes.
Fair play may be an evolved adaptation that allows individuals to form and maintain social bonds. Dogs, like humans, form intricate networks of social relationships and live by rules of conduct that maintain a stable society, which is necessary to ensure the survival of each individual. Basic rules of fairness guide social play and are the foundation for fairness among adults. The moral intelligence evident in dogs may resemble that of our early human ancestors. It may have been this sense of right and wrong that allowed human societies to flourish and spread across the world.
Ed Boks is the executive director of the Yavapai Humane Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 445-2666, ext. 101.