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Dogs know a fair shake when they see one, say researchers

December 9, 2008 |  2:45 pm

Dogs perform tricks in a new behavior study published in the journal PNAS

A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows what most dog owners already knew: Man's best friend experiences jealousy and understands the basic concept of fairness.

"Animals react to inequity," Friederike Range of the University of Vienna, Austria, told the Associated Press. "To avoid stress, we should try to avoid treating them differently."  Range headed the research team at the university's "Clever Dog Lab," where teams of dogs (two per team) were asked to perform tricks -- with different results.  The AP explains:

The dogs sat side-by-side with an experimenter in front of them. In front of the experimenter was a divided food bowl with pieces of sausage on one side and brown bread on the other.

The dogs were asked to shake hands and each could see what reward the other received.

When one dog got a reward and the other didn't, the unrewarded animal stopped playing.

When both got a reward all was well.

But it seemed the concept of reward was more important than the reward itself -- researchers found that the dogs didn't care whether they received sausage or bread, as long as they got a treat!

Similar studies with monkeys show intriguingly different results -- the monkeys went on strike when they saw that they were getting sub-par treats, and refused to eat when they felt they were offered an unfair reward.  (Dog owners can probably guess that the dogs never refused a treat.)

Read the full AP story after the jump.

Dogs can think 'no fair' too
By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID
AP Science Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — No fair!

What parent hasn't heard that from a child who thinks another youngster got more of something? Well, it turns out dogs can react the same way.

Ask them to do a trick and they'll give it a try. For a reward, sausage say, they'll happily keep at it.

But if one dog gets no reward, and then sees another get sausage for doing the same trick, just try to get the first one to do it again.

Indeed, he may even turn away and refuse to look at you.

Dogs, like people and monkeys, seem to have a sense of fairness.

"Animals react to inequity," said Friederike Range of the University of Vienna, Austria, who led a team of researchers testing animals at the school's Clever Dog Lab. "To avoid stress, we should try to avoid treating them differently."

Similar responses have been seen in monkeys.

Range said she wasn't surprised at the dogs reaction, since wolves are known to cooperate with one another and appear to be sensitive to each other. Modern dogs are descended from wolves.

Next, she said, will be experiments to test how dogs and wolves work together. "Among other questions, we will investigate how differences in emotions influence cooperative abilities," she said via e-mail.

In the reward experiments reported in Tuesday's edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Range and colleagues experimented with dogs that understood the command "paw," to place their paw in the hand of a researcher. It's the same game as teaching a dog to "shake hands."

Those that refused at the start — and one border collie that insisted on trying to herd other dogs — were removed. That left 29 dogs to be tested in varying pairs.

The dogs sat side-by-side with an experimenter in front of them. In front of the experimenter was a divided food bowl with pieces of sausage on one side and brown bread on the other.

The dogs were asked to shake hands and each could see what reward the other received.

When one dog got a reward and the other didn't, the unrewarded animal stopped playing.

When both got a reward all was well.

One thing that did surprise the researchers was that — unlike primates — the dogs didn't seem to care whether the reward was sausage or bread.

Possibly, they suggested, the presence of a reward was so important it obscured any preference. Other possibilities, they said, are that daily training with their owners overrides a preference, or that the social condition of working next to a partner increased their motivation regardless of which reward they got.

And the dogs never rejected the food, something that primates had done when they thought the reward was unfair.

The dogs, the researchers said, "were not willing to pay a cost by rejecting unfair offers."

Clive Wynne, an associate professor in the psychology department of the University of Florida, isn't so sure the experiment measures the animals reaction to fairness.

"What it means is individuals are responding negatively to being treated less well," he said in a telephone interview.

But the researchers didn't do a control test that had been done in monkey studies, Wynne said, in which a preferred reward was visible but not given to anyone. In that case the monkeys went on strike because they could see the better reward but got something lesser.

Range responded, however, that her team did indeed do that control test as well as others in which food was moved or held in the hand but not given to the dog being tested.

In dogs, Wynne noted, the quality of reward didn't seem to matter, so the test only worked when they got no reward at all.

However, Wynne added, there is "no doubt in my mind that dogs are very, very sensitive to what people are doing and are very smart."

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Associated Press/Friederike Range, PNAS

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