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Dogs: They’ve grown accustomed to our ways

Ten thousand years of dog evolution have led not just to more intelligent dogs, but to dogs with more empathy and more finely honed senses of right and wrong, a series of new studies indicate.

Because of the way owners have selected smarter and more empathic pets, dogs now appear to have a limited “theory of mind” —  the capacity that enables one to understand the desires, motivations and intentions of others, New Scientist reported yesterday.

And what has traditionally been dismissed as anthropomorphism — attributing human traits and feelings to animals — may not be that at all. Instead, dogs, as their communications with humans evolves, may actually be taking on those traits and becoming more like humans.

Whether that’s a good thing is open to argument.

At the first Canine Science Forum in Budapest, Hungary, a few weeks ago scientists outlined several experiments showing how dogs, through thousands of years of interacting with humans, are reflecting feelings and thought processes once thought strictly human, the Telegraph of London reported yesterday.

Marc Bekoff from the University of Colorado at Boulder, for example, thinks dogs have developed a moral compass. Rough play between dogs, he says, rarely escalates into full-blown fighting, indicating that dogs don’t just abide by a set of unspoken rules. but that they expect others to do the same.

Dogs may have a sense of justice, Friederike Range from the University of Vienna, reported. Her experiments, in which one pooch was given a treat and another denied it, shows they may have something akin to a sense of fairness.

“Dogs show some aversion to inequity,” she says. “I prefer not to call it a sense of fairness, but others might.”

In research at Kyoto University, Akiko Takaoka played dogs recordings of unfamiliar voices – both male and female – with each voice followed by a photo of a human face on a screen. If the gender of the face did not match that of the voice, the dogs stared longer, a sign that the image did not match their expectations.

Meanwhile, Dr Juliane Kaminski at the University of Cambridge has examined how dogs can use human gestures such as pointing and gazing to find hidden food or toys. “Domestication seems to have shaped dogs in a way which enables them to use these gestures from as early as six weeks,” she said.

The full New Scientist article is available with a subscription.


Comment from Anne-n-Spencer
Time August 22, 2008 at 1:44 pm

I woke up before the alarm a couple of mornings ago with a strange sensation in my right hand, which I had apparently thrown out to one side, outside of the covers. It was the Beagle, attempting to use the hand to scratch his ears or to attract my attention so that he could notify me that he wanted the ears scratched. He does this often, but always when I’m awake.

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