Dogs have Ethics, “a nuanced moral system” say natural historian Jake Page and animal behavorist Marc Bekoff

May 29, 2009

“Dogs have souls, but you already knew that” was the headline in the May 16, 2009 Seattle Times.

It’s unfortunate that the headline writer chose the word “soul.”

I find the evidence that I have a soul unconvincing, much less an immortal, indestructible spirit residing in each of our Labradors. And what Jake Page and Marc Bekoff are really talking about here are emotions and ethics, empathy and compassion, not spooks in the night.

One point on which I definitely agree is that dogs have a rich, interior emotional life.

Bekoff , co-author of Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, contends that:

• Dogs have a sense of fair play. They dislike cheaters. They experience joy in play. They delight in friends. Big dogs handicap themselves in games with little dogs.

• Dogs get jealous when a rival gets more or better treats or treatment. They are resentful, unnerved or saddened by unfair behavior. They are made anxious by suspense. They get afraid.

• They are embarrassed when they mess up or do something clumsy. They feel remorse or regret when they do something wrong. They seek justice. They remember the bad things done to them, but sometimes choose to forgive.

• Dogs have affection and compassion for their animal and human friends and family. They defend loved ones. They grieve their losses. They have hope.

I think I have observed every one of the behaviors that Bekoff lists here, as I’m sure would most dog-owners. Another less tangible variable, every dog I’ve ever known had what I believed to be a unique personality. Likes, dislikes, behaviors, food preferences, choice of games or toys, the list goes on and on.

Jake Page shows evidence that dogs actually do laugh. The same areas of the brain light up  in laughing humans as in dogs that are happy, or enjoying themselves when viewed under a fMRI scanner (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging).

I don’t doubt there is a relationship here, but I’m not certain that’s actually evidence of canine laughter.

The vocalization of a dog’s laugh, according to Page, is a rhythmic pant. By that definition, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a non-animated dog laugh.

My 3 year old black Lab Luna does a lot of rhythmic panting after she’s been chasing her ball for 15 or 20 minutes, but I don’t think she’s laughing, just hyper-ventilating.

Back to that headline. Bekoff invites it, of course, when he refers to the “spiritual unity” between humans and canines. I have to quibble with that qualifier. Why not just say “unity”?

I mean, I’ve known some dogs who had soul (they were funky and down in the groove dogs) but not a soul. As in a personality that would persist after brain death? I’m not seeing the data here.

Yet there’s also no doubt in my mind that dogs have long term memory and an active dream life.

Maybe that is implicit in Bekoff’s observations, some of the above would be impossible without memory. And dreaming has been tied in some studies to processing the information of the past 12 hours. It has been shown that by interrupting REM sleep in humans you adversely affect the learning process.

There’s a deep connection between all the members of my pack and I think of it as concrete and real. It isn’t a religious feeling for me and it has nothing to with a traditionally defined “soul.” Can’t an atheist love, and be loved by, one good dog? One with liver treats?


For the complete article at the Seattle Times site, go here.do_dogs_laugh

Do Dogs Laugh?: Where Dogs Come From, What We Know About Them, and What They Think About Us by Jake Page, available at Amazon.


Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce.


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