New research has shown that dogs are aware of the concept of fairness. They can tell whether something is fair or not: they just don’t really care… so long as they are better off for it.
In the study, undertaken by Alexandra Horowitz at Bernard College in the USA, 38 dogs were assessed, one at a time.
Each dog spent time interacting with trainers, along with a control dog. The trainers each either over-rewarded or under-rewarded the control dog, or treated both dogs fairly. In the second part of the study, once the dogs had gotten to know the trainers, they were allowed to approach whichever trainer they preferred. The dogs consistently preferred the trainer who had over-rewarded the control dog in the first part of the study, but remained indifferent to both the under-rewarding and fair trainers.
Previous studies have shown dogs to avoid unfair trainers, but this one sheds new light on the dogs’ behaviour. The conclusion: dogs were able to recognise fairness, but had no qualms about exploiting it in their own interests.
Interestingly, however, older dogs were shown to significantly prefer the fair trainer, suggesting that a preference for fairness develops over time.
Other studies into the concept of fairness in animals have identified that monkeys noticeably avoided playing unfair games. When one monkey was rewarded with the desirable treat of a grape in exchange for handing over a pebble, and the other with a less desirable slice of cucumber, the latter often refused to continue his part in the trial. Researchers also observed the unfairly treated monkey throwing their slice of cucumber, or their pebble, on the floor and storming off! These reactions were seen more commonly when the unfairly treated monkey was present to observe the other monkey getting the grape in exchange for the pebble.
These studies have demonstrated that the concept of fairness is not limited to humans alone, and that – in fact – it is an evolved behaviour that serves as beneficial to all creatures.
The implications of this for the everyday dog owner?
If a dog is able to perceive fairness and unfairness, it goes without saying that you should seek to treat them fairly. Though they are bound to be happy to be on the receiving end of preferential treatment, if they see themselves being treated unfairly, this may lead to behavioural problems. In order to maintain a healthy, trusting relationship between you and your dog, it pays to play fair.