The Canine Moral Compass

August 26, 2008 at 3:04 am 1 comment

A study recently published in New Scientist may change the way some view our dogs’ cognitive abilities.

Historically most scientists have believed that those of us who think our dogs are emotional, rational beings were being foolishly anthropomorphic.  That dismissive view has been challenged by recent studies that provide evidence that 10,000 years of co-evolution at our side has had a remarkable effect on our dogs cognitive abilities.

According to the Telegraph:

Although still controversial, recent research is beginning to support the view that an owner is perfectly correct when they pat their pet and coo “who’s a clever boy then?”

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.

Studies from institutions in Hungary, Austria, Japan and the United Kingdom presented at the first Canine Science Forum in Budapest, Hungary presented different lines of evidence that dogs have an innate sense of right versus wrong, that they understand the idea of equity and that they have the ability to understand the desires, motivations and intentions of others.

Besides being interesting science — this research brings two important ideas to my mind.  Ideas not mentioned in any of the articles on the studies that I read.

The first is that, if we consider that our dogs have an understanding of right versus wrong, we must realize that a dog’s ideas about right and wrong are not necessarily (and in fact, are not likely) the same as our own.  Many of our human expectations for dogs spring from an unnatural modern human cultural ideal, not from the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer one we and our dogs originally emerged from. 

Next we must realize that because ideas about right and wrong are, to a large degree, cultural, it is our responsibility to instill the right kinds of cultural values in our dogs through training.  Sadly, far too many people today refuse to accept the responsibility of teaching their dogs right from wrong.  And when we forsake that responsiblity, it is our dogs who suffer the consequences.


In an interesting tangent, I just finished reading Power and Innocence  by Rollo May.  May believed that we are so obsessed with the idea of the misuse of power that the word itself has gained a strong negative connotation. Power is too often and too strongly correlated with coercive force.  Ironically, much more often it is powerlessness that leads to the impotence and apathy that foster aggression.  “Deeds of violence in our society are performed largely by those trying to establish their self-esteem, to defend their self-image, and to demonstrate that they too are significant.” 

According to May, recognizing and acknowledging our sense of power leads to a sense of responsibility, if on the other hand, we deny our power, we have no need to accept responsibility. And one of the most important places in our lives where we need to responsibly exercise power and authority is in raising our children and our pets. 

As children and puppies grow, they sometimes seek out conflict or opposition in order to practice self-assertion.  This is a natural thing.  It’s part of growing up.  But if in their seeking, they do not find fair and measurable boundaries – if we do not exert our power and authority over them – they will feel lost. 

The sense of being lost arises because this seeking for boundaries is how we (human and canine) develop our moral compasses — the implicit and unspoken rules that define the boundaries of our lives together.

This mapping out of boundaries takes time.  Anyone who’s raised a child understands this.  We spend thousands of hours of time with our children patiently explaining the whys and whos and whats and wherefores of life. So why then, do so many of us expect our dogs to spring forth from their dam’s womb not only understanding complete sentences in English, but also being pre-programmed with an innate understanding of the rules and rites and oddities of our day to day lives?

Back in June I attended a workshop put on by Kayce Cover.  The thing that struck me most about her work is how strongly it resembles the instructional interactions between a parent and child.  She demonstrated targeting skills by naming and touching different body parts.  She taught motor commands partly by encouraging copy cat behavior while naming actions. It was like watching a gifted, charming and somewhat odd preschool teacher work with dogs and horses instead of toddlers.  Brilliant.

So why is it that, in a time when many of us refer to our dogs as ‘kids’, that we do not make this kind of effort in explaining the world to them?  Have we become so terrified of our own power that we cannot accept the sobering responsibility of simply being able to say no?

Entry filed under: behavior science, dog training, dogs. Tags: , , , , .

Is it the Dogzzzzzz Fault? New Canine Performance Venue?

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Caveat  |  August 27, 2008 at 12:18 am

    I figure dogs’ rules are to be optimistic, take what you can get but help others, don’t complain about your lot in life, don’t start fights but don’t take any guff from troublemakers either and always remember to be polite and mind your manners when in company. Oh, and be patient with those who are less gifted – like people :>)

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Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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