Sad study: we probably bred dogs to forgive unfairness

A study published in the journal Current Biology tells us something we already know: dogs have basically been bred to accept raw deals from people.

It’s a really depressing conclusion if you stop to think about it, but it makes a lot of sense. Time and again research shows that dogs operate in hierarchies with humans at the top. We take what we want and give the dogs the rest — and they are all too happy to work with us.

To be clear, dogs (as well as wolves, their wild cousins) definitely know when we’re giving them short shrift. If you have a steak and you don’t give them any, they might tolerate it, but they’ll definitely know that you held out on them. How could they not? They won’t, however, hold a grudge. Wolves, on the other hand, definitely remember.

Researchers were originally looking to test the idea that we trained dogs to recognize unfair treatment — a hallmark sign, biologists have found, that a species is gregarious. To their surprise, the study authors found that wolves — technically the same species (canis lupus) as our own pet doggos — had the same trait.

To test their hypothesis, a team at the Wolf Science Center in Austria raised several dogs and wolves in similar pack-based environments. Then two of them were placed in neighboring plots with a machine attached to a button. Subjects were trained to press the button, but noticed that when they did, the pupper next door would get the treat — not them. Both animals would be furious when they realized that they weren’t getting food.

“For some of them it was a really, really quick and strong response,” study co-author, Jennifer Essler, told the BBC. “One of the wolves stopped working after the third trial of not receiving anything while his partner received something. I think he was so frustrated he even broke the apparatus.”

Wolves resented their trainers and their partners after the test, while dogs just held a grudge against the other dogs. While it’s not totally clear, it could suggest that wolves don’t consider humans to be part of their hierarchy. Dogs, on the other hand, easily recognize us as pack leaders and will default to our commands. Domesticated pooches also took longer to give up the tests — suggesting they have a greater tolerance for unequal or unfair treatment.

Despite that, the paper’s assertion is that wolves align pretty well with other non-primate pack animals. For these types of species, maintaining their primitive social order is important, and they’ve evolved concepts of “fairness” to reinforce that.

It goes a step further too: not only do canines understand when one of their cohorts gets a treat and they don’t, researchers also gave some dogs standard dry food and others steaks. Once again, these porpers noticed the inequality and were, understandably, upset. The response also scaled with the dog or wolves’ position in their pack, with higher-ranks getting frustrated more easily and lashing out more aggressively.

Tying it all together, dogs were more sensitive to the hierarchy too. Wolves reinforced it, but they were more adamant about sharing. High-rank dogs, though, would hoard and refuse to feed others. And on the whole, they accepted it.

So, in sum: dogs and wolves understand fairness, wolves react more strongly and will hold grudges against humans while dogs only get mad at their peers, dogs let the top of their pack abuse power, and most of the time the head of the pack is… well us.

It’s hard not to read into that and recall how many dogs are horribly mistreated by their owners, but they’ll stay loyal and obedient anyway. It’s grim to think that we took a trait that was probably natural, and twisted it in such a psychologically warped way.

Or, maybe I’m thinking too much about it. I’m a cat person anyway.

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