Many dog owners — and this seems to have been confirmed by science — can attest that when obviously treated unfairly, a dog will recognize this situation and react. It’s been always thought that this is an acquired trait from living with humans but new research shows wolves do the same suggesting the behavior predates canine domestication.
Humans are such a successful species largely because of cooperation. Alone we don’t amount to much but together we can literally shape the world. For cooperation to work, etiquette is necessary and to enforce these rules of cooperation humans have learned to sense inequality, to develop a ‘sense of fairness’. It’s believed this behavior is present in non-human primates as well but also in other intelligent social species.
Scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna worked with dogs and wolves that were raised to live in packs. In the experiment, two animals of each species were placed in adjacent cages where a buzzer would ring when the dog or wolf pressed it with their paw. When the buzzer was pressed, it would sometimes offer both animals a reward but the preferred and thus higher quality treat was again given to the partner. Other times, the animal performing the task would get nothing while the adjacent partner did.
When the partner got a treat but the dog or wolf performing the task didn’t, the animal doing the pressing refused to continue with it. Most tellingly, the dogs and wolves were happy to press the buzzer for no reward when there was no partner there. An unfairness threshold had been breached and cooperation ceased. Hierarchy in the pack for both dogs and wolves also played a role as the alpha males ceased the cooperation more quickly.
“When the inequity was greatest they stopped working,” said Jennifer Essler, from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna.
“For some of them it was a really really quick and strong response. One of the wolves stopped working after the third trial of not receiving anything while his partner received something. I think he was so frustrated he even broke the apparatus.”
Because both wolves and dogs have the same response, it overturns the idea that this behavior is acquired by domestication. Instead, the behavior must have first appeared in a common ancestor to both dogs and wolves. So next time you ground Fido for being naughty, you better help that inner wolf doesn’t come back at you.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.