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That Barking Dog May Want to Chat About Fairness

Scientists tell us that humans and wolves began to cooperate with each other for the simple reason that they shared the same habitat and hunted the same prey. But what started as expedience transformed rather quickly on the evolutionary scale to a true kindred partnership. At Bonn-Oberkassel, a burial site in Germany, humans and dogs were buried together beginning in 12,000 B.C.E.

One of the most easily recognizable differences between wolf behavior and their domesticated cousin, Canis lupus familiaris, is barking. Barking is rare in the wild, even among feral dogs, says Professor Péter Pongrácz from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. In an article in the New Scientist, Pongrácz suggests that barking evolved during domestication as a dog’s way of communicating with humans. The training was not all on the shoulders of the beast — people, too, learned to listen and understand. As Pongrácz says, “Even children from the age of six who have never had a dog recognize these patterns.”

Professor Marc Bekoff from the University of Colorado, Boulder, believes dogs possess a moral compass. Bekoff notes that although dogs will nip, wrestle, and chase, they tend to avoid a real out-and-out fight. Dogs know the difference between right and wrong, says Bekoff; they know the rules, abide by them, and expect others to do the same — all of which is necessary in the complex human social environment. Certainly any owner who has seen the look on a dog’s face after being caught eating the cat’s food can attest to a very “knowing” look of guilt. A possible explanation for the look may lie in a dog’s sense of its own self: If I go in the car with you, am I not special? If I walk in the woods with you, am I not special? If I come when you call me, am I not special? So why does the cat get “special” food? Dr. Friederike Range, of the University of Vienna, says, “Dogs show some aversion to inequity. I prefer not to call it a sense of fairness, but others might.”


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