New research from the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews shows that dogs can utilize morality to base their relationships and reactions to people, depending on the behavior of the people they are around.
After researchers from Kyoto University found that babies as young as one year used moral archetypes to judge and react to adults, they wondered if the same process of judgment applied to dogs as well, because dogs are smarter than babies — science says so.
During their comparative study, researchers hired actors to react differently to a person who was struggling to open a container in front of a dog. One actor helped the struggling person, one sat by passively, and one audibly and rudely refused to help. After his or her interaction with the person struggling, each actor would offer a treat to the dog. And while you may think that no dog could resist a free treat, you’d be surprised at the results of Kyoto University’s lead researcher, comparative psychologist James Anderson’s, experiment.
As it turns out, the dogs accepted the treats from the actors who showed initiative to help and care. When the actor was helpful, the dog showed no preference between accepting the reward from the struggler or the helper. But when the companion refused to help, the dog more often took food from the struggler. Additionally, the dogs refused (in the majority of cases) to take the treats from the actors who had acted boorish and refused to help at all.
The study concluded that this majority choice to refuse the treat from the rude person is a direct connection to dogs’ ability to understand helpfulness and fairness — as well as maintain a certain level of social awareness regardless of the species around them.
Additionally, in 2011, during a similar study conducted at Kyoto University, dogs were shown to prefer people who gave food to beggars over those who refused. These instances cement the idea that dog’s eras-long relationship with humans has contributed to their adaptation and awareness of human feelings. “I think that in humans there may be this basic sensitivity toward antisocial behavior in others. Then through growing up, enculturation, and teaching, it develops into a full-blown sense of morality,” Anderson says in a report from New Scientist.
So if you’re a jerk, your dog is going to take notice. Similarly, if your dog is giving someone the cold shoulder, it’s probably for good reason. Your pooch may just be a better judge of character than you are.