How dogs play hints that they may have their own moral code

Washington PostJune 2, 2014 

DOGPLAY207

Beneath this tug-of-war, research suggests, lies a hidden language of honesty and deceit, empathy and perhaps a humanlike morality. Cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff spent his career figuring out how dogs use play to communicate larger ideas.

LINDA DAVIDSON — WASHINGTON POST

A shaggy brown terrier approaches a large chocolate Labrador in a city park. When the terrier gets close, he adopts a yogalike pose, crouching on his forepaws and hiking his butt into the air. The Lab gives an excited bark, and soon the two dogs are somersaulting and tugging on each other’s ears. Then the terrier takes off and the Lab gives chase, his tail wagging wildly. When the two meet once more, the whole thing begins again.

Watch a couple of dogs play, and you’ll probably see gestures that seem random, lots of frenetic activity and a whole lot of energy being expended. But decades of research suggest that beneath this apparently frivolous fun lies a hidden language of honesty and deceit, empathy and perhaps even a humanlike morality.

Take those two dogs. That yogalike pose is known as a “play bow,” and in the language of play it’s one of the most commonly used phrases. It’s an instigation and a clarification, a warning and an apology. Dogs often adopt this stance as an invitation to play right before they lunge at another dog; they also bow before they nip (“I’m going to bite you, but I’m just fooling around.”) or after some particularly aggressive roughhousing (“Sorry I knocked you over; I didn’t mean it. ”).

All of this suggests that dogs have a kind of moral code – one long hidden to humans until a cognitive ethologist named Marc Bekoff began to crack it.

A wiry 68-year-old with reddish-gray hair tied back in a long ponytail, Bekoff is a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he taught for 32 years. He began studying animal behavior in the early 1970s, spending four years videotaping groups of dogs, wolves and coyotes in large enclosures and slowly playing back the tapes, jotting down every nip, yip and lick. “Twenty minutes of film could take a week to analyze,” he said.

The data revealed insights into how the animals maintained their tight social bonds – by grooming each other, for example. But what changed Bekoff’s life was watching them play. The wolves would chase each other, run, jump and roll over for seemingly no other reason than to have fun.

Few people had studied animal play, but Bekoff was intrigued. “Play is a major expenditure of energy, and it can be dangerous,” he said. “You can twist a shoulder or break a leg, and it can increase your chances of being preyed upon. So why do they do it? It has to feel good.”

Suddenly, Bekoff wasn’t interested just in behavior; he was interested also in emotions and, fundamentally, what was going on inside these animals’ heads.

Behaviors, signals

By the time Bekoff turned his attention to canines, scientists had long deemed them unworthy of study. Because they no longer lived in their natural environment, the thinking went, their minds were corrupted and could not shed light on the bigger question, the evolution of human intelligence. The only animals worth studying were wild ones.

But when Bekoff began looking at videos of dogs romping in superslow motion, he began to realize that there was more going on in the canine mind than science had acknowledged. He noticed the “play bow,” for example.

What’s more, he found that canines “role-reverse” or “self-handicap” during play. When a big dog played with a smaller one, for example, the big dog often rolled on her back to give the smaller dog an advantage, and she allowed the other dog to jump on her far more often than she jumped on him.

Bekoff also spotted a number of other blink-and-you’d-miss-them behaviors, such as a sudden shift in the eyes – a squint that can mean “you’re playing too rough” – and a particular wag of the tail that says, “I’m open to be approached.”

Such signals are important during play; without them, a giddy tussle can quickly turn into a vicious fight.

In the wild, coyotes ostracize pack members that don’t play by the rules. Something similar happens in dog parks: If three dogs are playing and one bites or tackles too hard, the other two are likely to give him the cold shoulder and stop playing with him, Bekoff said. Such behavior, he said, suggests that dogs are capable of morality, a mindset once thought to be uniquely human.

Even morality hints at something deeper, however. To enforce moral conduct, dogs must be able to experience a spectrum of emotions, from joy to indignation, guilt to jealousy. They must also be able to read these emotions in others, distinguishing accident from intent, honesty from deceit. And indeed, recent studies by other scientists have shown evidence of these abilities (confirming what many dog owners already feel about their pets).

Scientists have found, for example, that dogs trained to shake hands with humans will stop shaking if they notice that they aren’t being rewarded for the trick although a nearby dog is – a sign, the researchers suggested, that dogs can sense inequity.

Other studies have revealed that dogs yawn when they see humans yawning and that they nuzzle and lick people who are crying; scientists consider both behaviors displays of empathy, a rarely documented trait in the animal kingdom.

Dogs evince what researchers said was a pessimistic attitude when their masters left for work: They were more likely to howl and tear up the couch when their owner disappeared, possibly because they didn’t believe their master would return.

‘Theory of mind’

Bekoff’s recent work suggests another remarkable canine skill: the ability to know what another animal is thinking – a so-called theory of mind.

Dogs seem to display a rudimentary form of this skill during play. Bekoff has noticed, for example, that one dog won’t begin trying to play with another dog until he has her attention. To get her to notice, he may nip the other dog or run into her field of view. That, Bekoff said, shows that the one wanting to play knows that she’s not paying attention to him. Though this may seem like a simple skill, it’s incredibly important to our species. Without it, we can have a hard time learning or interacting with the world around us.

Interestingly, dogs even outsmart chimpanzees on some theory-of-mind tests. When a researcher points at one of two cups, for example, dogs almost always run to the cup that is pointed to, a sign that they have intuited what the scientist was thinking – that the researcher was trying to show the dog something. Chimps, by contrast, have no idea what we mean when we point at something.

“When we study play in dogs,” Bekoff said, “we study ourselves.”

David Grimm is a deputy news editor at Science and the author of the new book “Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship With Cats and Dogs.”

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service