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Human Contact Teaches Dog Morals

August 21, 2008

Scientists say dogs are becoming increasingly more intelligent and are even learning morals from living in close contact with humans.

The fact that dogs’ play rarely escalates into a fight shows the animals abide by social rules, they say.

One study observed dogs in an experimental setting where when they held up a paw, they were rewarded with a food treat, but when a lone dog was asked to raise its paw but received no treat, the researchers found it begged for up to 30 minutes.

Researchers found when they tested two dogs together but rewarded only one, the dog which missed out soon stopped playing the game.

“Dogs show a strong aversion to inequity. I would prefer not to call it a sense of fairness, but others might,” said Dr. Friederike Range, of the University of Vienna, who led the study.
 
More than 200 experts curious to discuss what is going on inside the mind of a dog attended the first Canine Science Forum in Budapest.

Many believe human’s inclination to invest dogs with human-like states of mind isn’t as unscientific as it might appear.

Domestic dogs evolved from grey wolves as recently as 10,000 years ago.

Dr. Peter Pongracz from Eotvos Lorand University, Budapest, and colleagues have produced evidence dog barks contain information that people can understand.

They’re research suggests even people who have never owned a dog can recognize the emotional ‘meaning’ of barks produced in various situations, such as when playing, left alone and confronted by a stranger.

They’ve developed a new computer program that can aggregate hundreds of barks recorded in various settings and boil them down to their basic acoustic ingredients.

Each of the different types of bark has distinct patterns of frequency, tonality and pulsing, and an artificial neural network can use these features to correctly identify a bark it has never encountered before, the researchers said.

New Scientist magazine said this is further evidence that barking conveys information about a dog’s mental state.

People can correctly identify aggregated barks as conveying happiness, loneliness or aggression, they found.

Pongracz said even children from the age of six who have never had a dog recognize these patterns.

They say dogs can also understand some aspects of human communication.

Dr. Akiko Takaoka from Kyoto University in Japan described a soon to be published work that examined what is going on inside a dog’s mind when it hears a stranger’s voice.

She played dogs a series of recordings of unfamiliar voices – both male and female – with each voice followed by a photo of a human face on a screen.

She noticed that if the gender of the face did not match that of the voice, the dogs stared longer, a sign that their expectations had been violated.

“This suggests dogs generate an internal visual representation of a male or female correlated with the voice,” said Takaoka. She suggests that this ability to infer information about a person from their voice alone might help dogs communicate with people.

The term “theory of behavior” may describe a dogs’ apparent insight, said Dr. Alexandra Horowitz from Barnard College in New York

“I think there is a massive territory between a theory of mind and a theory of behavior,” she said.

Her study shows that when dogs play together, they use appropriate signals for grabbing attention or signaling the desire to play depending on their playmate’s apparent level of attention, such as whether it is facing them or side-on.

She said such behavior could be interpreted as mind reading, but a simpler explanation is that dogs are reading body language and reacting in stereotyped ways.

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