A Doggy Sense of Fairness


Do dogs have a sense of fairness? A sense of justice? Many people argue that only humans can grasp and use such higher-level concepts, but more and more research is showing that this simply isn’t true. And anyone who has lived in a multi-dog household knows that, if one dog is getting something good, the other dogs certainly notice if they are being left out or shortchanged — that is, they are being treated unfairly.

Ethologist and primatologist Frans deWaal states that reciprocity and empathy are the foundations of morality; these are also essential elements of fairness and justice. But fairness and justice are a little higher up on the cognition and morality concept scale. Fairness and justice go beyond the immediate exchange. An animal — or human — who does not recognize and practice reciprocity cannot truly have a concept of what is fair or just. Similarly, lacking empathy would make it difficult or impossible to understand the concepts of fairness and justice. De Waal has published research that shows evidence of reciprocity and empathy, and even fairness and justice, in chimpanzees and elephants. Dogs, with their long history of socialization with humans, surely are capable of these higher-level concepts as well.

We certainly know that some dogs have a strong sense of empathy. They feel the pain of other dogs or their people and offer cuddles or favorite toys in a gesture of comfort. And, we know that dogs illustrate reciprocity. They “take turns” winning at tug games with other dogs, even when the bigger, stronger of the two could easily win every match. I’ve even seen dogs line up for a turn at the water bowl.

Dogs are highly social animals. They learn and follow social rules. This starts when littermates temporarily refuse to play with a sibling who is playing too roughly. Dogs routinely shun playmates who are known to cheat — that is, dogs who give a play signal and then perform an action, such as biting, in a rough, non-playful manner. Doggy social skills matter — enough that many dog owners spend hundreds of dollars to teach their dogs proper social skills. The owners with dogs who don’t get it  — those whose dogs howl and lunge at the sight of another dog, for example — find themselves ostracized by other dogs and dog owners. I’ve heard enough stories of people who walk their dogs only in the wee hours of the morning or drive out to deserted paths to ensure they won’t meet other dogs to know how important proper canine social skills can be.

Social skills rest on rules about how we treat each other — which is a neat definition of a moral code. It is all about reciprocity, about not doing to others what you don’t want them to do to you. It is also about each member of the group getting his or her due. Fairness.

The next question is when and how this develops in dogs — and how far it goes. Cali wails in despair if I take Jana for a walk without her, so why doesn’t she object when she and I head to school — leaving Jana behind? Where’s the reciprocity? Is her sense of fairness focused only on herself?

Jana enjoys the solo walks — but she also accepts calmly the times that Cali and I leave her home alone. Then again, when young Cali gets puppy lunch, Jana demands her share — or an equivalent perk, like a treat toy with a really good cookie tucked inside. So, do dogs grow up and grow into a broader application of fairness, a greater willingness to reciprocate? Or does it all come down to protecting their self-interest?

In humans, we can trace the stages of moral development, from being very focused on one’s own needs and wants, through focusing on external approval, to an increasing ability to “do the right thing,” even if there is a personal cost. Stories of hero dogs hint that this moral growth is possible in dogs as well. Deni’s new guide dog, a highly food-motivated Labrador (hmm, isn’t that redundant?) passed a tough training exercise with flying colors: ignoring treats raining down around her as she guided Deni to a chair. This is a grad-school application of the “leave it” exercises I am practicing with Cali, and it demonstrates an ability to rein in impulses and refrain from gratifying a need or want — but why does she refrain? Because it’s the right thing to do? Because the human wants her to? Or because the dog knows that ignoring the treat will pay off in a reward?

The answer to that question, elusive though it may be, tells us where a dog is in the “moral development” process. In a class I teach, we’ll soon begin to examine a moral development theory that was developed to describe humans. It labels stages of development based on which reason is behind a person’s decisions. We’ll examine how these concepts apply to dogs and search for examples of dogs doing the right thing just because it is the right thing to do.

That does not mean never acting in their own interest: One fundamental of human moral development theory is that it is OK to take care of yourself, so long as you are also doing the right thing in regard to others. The canines I know would certainly agree with that. They might have learned not to take each other’s food, but they can (and do) certainly enjoy their own meals while being “good” to their canine sibs.

4 thoughts on “A Doggy Sense of Fairness

  1. Interesting observations. I see “fairness” in our multi-species household. The cats come when the dogs get a treat. The dogs seem to wake up from a sleep when one of the humans is touching another dog with sweet petting. It is challenging to talk about the animals and not “anthropomorphize” as people have commented. Yet as humans we use language to have conversation and I think it is reasonable to use our chosen language to discuss our observations.

    One thing that does make my skin crawl a bit is the use of “owner.” I believe we as the humans bring animals into our lives to care for and share companionship, so I prefer “guardian.”

    Keep up the good work challenging our way of looking at things!


  2. Pam– Congratulations on a nicely written article that reads well. However, I find several of the points that you address debatable and without more expansion, they will not stand. I know this is not an academic thesis, but I think it tries to sound that way. In this post, you seem to be caught between observations of your two protagonists and a desire to develop the notion that dogs have the capability to understand fairness.

    I wish we could talk about this F2F as I am too lazy to develop a really good critique of your piece. But let me say that in this discussion, one might want to consider whether ‘fairness’ is really an innate trait or something that is culturally imposed. One of the salient characteristics of dogs is their ability to empathize with their humans. This goes a long way toward establishing and maintaining their relationships with ‘us’. For our part, we manage to anthropomorphize most of the actions that our dogs present, and that makes it easier for us to believe that we understand our canine companions. I feel that your discussion suffers from this tendency.

    That said, I still enjoyed reading your post and it brought to mind some of my own experiences of sharing with my dogs. Weiser and I sharing and ice cream cone. He was very good at taking turns. Storm too shared a cone with me, but he always waited for me to signal him when it was his turn. Weiser seemed to get that more readily. On the other hand, I don’t see my dogs really sharing or even thinking about taking turns– especially a certain little red dog that always thinks that it is his turn at the water dish or the food bowel. I suppose as he matures that will change.

    Anyway, I thank you for providing some interesting topics for consideration and look forward to your next post.


    PS: I’ll try to call you to talk about this some more.


  3. A wonderful article, Pam! The questions you develop are so intriguing and very elemental to the theory of mind and morality concepts. I want to learn more.


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