Fair or Foul? Wolves and Dogs Can Definitely Tell The Difference

As it turns out, humans aren’t the only ones who have a sense of fair play.

A recent behavioral study showed that wolves, like dogs, exhibit a “sensitivity to inequity,” or a sense of fairness, similar to humans or primates. Both wolves and dogs refused to cooperate in recent experiments where only a partner animal was properly rewarded.

The study was conducted by psychologists with the Messerli Research Institute of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna.

Researchers had both canine species, consisting of dogs that were similarly raised and wolves that lived in packs, participate in a no-reward test and a quality test. Two animals were brought into adjacent cages, each furnished with a buzzer device, and were tasked with pushing the buzzer with their paws in order to get a reward.

Photo: Rooobert Bayer/University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna

In the no-reward test, the partner animal got a treat in every trial while the test animal got nothing, explained Jennifer Essler from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna. In the quality test, both animals got a reward, but the partner animal was given a higher-quality treat.

The animals stopped participating when only their partner got a treat or they themselves received a lower-quality reward.

“When the inequity was greatest, they stopped working,” Essler told the BBC. “For some of them it was a really, really quick and strong response. 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.”

Researchers found that hierarchy played an important role in the tests, with the animals’ ranks in their respective packs factoring when they stopped cooperating during tests. Friederike Range, another one of the study’s investigators, said high-ranking animals became frustrated more quickly.

One interesting finding was that the animals continued to participate in tests when there was no partner involved.

Photo: Rooobert Bayer/University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna

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“This showed that the fact that they themselves had not received a reward was not the only reason why they stopped to cooperate with the trainer,” Range said. “They refuse to cooperate because the other one got something, but they themselves did not.”

The researchers also found that pet dogs appeared less sensitive to being treated unfairly, which they attributed to domestication.

“It seems that having a life experience living with humans makes them more tolerant to inequity that comes from humans,” Essler said.

The findings help dispute the notion that an aversion to inequity was caused or learned solely through being domesticated. Experiments in 2008 led by Range originally showed that dogs were sensitive to inequity. One possible explanation was that dogs learned a sense of fairness from humans. Because the behavior is strong in both wolves and dogs, the researchers believe it was likely inherited from a common ancestor.

An article on the study was published in the journal Current Biology.

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