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Researchers Discover a Complex Emotional and Moral Code in Dogs

1.A Code of Morals
Photo credit: Noël Zia Lee / Flickr

While dogs are certainly vastly different from humans, researchers have found that they do have an emotional and moral code. What is more, their emotional code is much more complex than many realize. Following is some insight into the canine mind and how and why dogs think and operate in the way that they do.

A Code of Morals

Most dog owners know that dogs have the potential to be kind, gentle, caring and extremely loyal. Guide dogs help their blind owners get around town. Watchdogs warn their owners when unknown people enter the premises. USA Today has even noted that some dogs are able to call 911 on behalf of an incapacitated owner. However, researchers have found that dogs also have what appears to be an inherent moral code that guides how they interact with and treat others dogs.

The Washington Post notes that Professor Emeritus Marc Bekoff from the University of Colorado has studied an aspect of dog behavior that many scientists and researchers ignore – dog play. In his studies, Bekoff notes that dogs have a code of moral conduct that they know must not be breached.

Dogs communicate with each other while they play to ensure that playtime is not mistaken for aggression and larger dogs frequently allow smaller dogs to pounce on them. What is more, dogs (both pet dogs and wild canine species such as coyotes) shun dogs that play in an overly aggressive manner.

Live Science notes that philosopher Mark Rowlands of the University of Miami concurs with the above assessment. In his book “Can Animals be Moral?”, Rowlands states that dogs, along with other animals, can choose to be good or bad. Live Science relates an instance where a stray dog clearly chose the former, risking its life to help move an unconscious dog off the road after it had been hit by a car.

What Dogs Feel

The belief that dogs have a moral code, albeit one that is not as complex as the human moral code, has changed the way many people feel about dogs. As Professor Berkoff notes, a dog that has a moral code must clearly be able to experience a wide range of emotions such as joy, anger, guilt and envy. What is more, dogs must have the capability to read these emotions in other dogs as well as in their masters.

While some would argue that dogs simply react as they are trained, Berkoff notes instances where a dog seems to have complex emotional feelings that dictate its actions or lack of action. It has been found that a dog that has been trained to shake hands with a human will refuse to do so if it is not rewarded for the trick and another dog is.

This in itself indicates not only feelings of envy but also the dogs are able to sense inequality. Berkoff also notes that a dog will go to great lengths to get the attention of another dog before beginning to play, indicating the emotional need for acceptance.

Dogs are certainly complex creatures and it is likely that humans will never fully understand them and their feelings. Even so, it is interesting to gain greater insight into an animal that is frequently called “man’s best friend.” Dogs, along with various other species, have not only complex emotions but even a moral code that guides their interactions with other animals and their human masters. Given this fact, it is clear that they should be treated with respect and dignity.

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