By Dr. Becker
If it ever seems like your dog is judging you, it may not be in your imagination. Similar to young children, who react negatively to people who are not nice to others, it’s thought that dogs may possess a type of innate morality that predisposes them to side with people who do the right thing.
Capuchin monkeys, which tend to be highly social and cooperative, also display this trait, which suggests many non-human animals may be capable of making social evaluations of others and modifying their behavior in response.
In 2013, comparative psychologist James Anderson at Kyoto University and colleagues revealed that capuchin monkeys will refuse food treats from unhelpful, selfish humans.1
When the capuchins were offered a treat from pairs that included a helpful human, they were just as likely to take a treat from either person. But when offered a treat by people who had refused to help their experiment partner, all seven monkeys were more likely to refuse it.
According to the researchers, “In humans, rejecting a gift may signify rejection of the interaction or relationship; our data raise the possibility that a similar effect may be seen in other species.”2
Dogs and Monkeys May Judge You Based on How You Treat Others
In separate research Anderson and colleagues again evaluated monkey and dog reactions in a series of social situations.3 In the first set of experiments, capuchin monkeys were offered food from two people — one who struggled to open a container and another who either helped or refused to help the struggler.
When the partner was helpful, the monkeys showed no preference in who to accept food from. However, when the person was unhelpful, they favored the food from the person in need — not the unhelpful bystander. In an evaluation of fairness, the monkeys also watched an interaction in which actor B gave three balls to actor A.
Actor B then requested that the balls be given back, to which actor A either gave back all the balls or none of the balls. When both actors offered food to the monkeys, they took it from either actor equally in cases when actor A gave back all of the balls. But when he refused, they took food more often from actor B.
A third experiment evaluated dogs, who watched as their owners asked for help in opening a container.
One actor offered help or refused it while a second actor served as a passive control. The dogs took food from either person if the actor was helpful, but in cases when the actor refused to help, the dogs preferred to take food from the passive bystander.4
Since the monkeys and dogs were able to make social evaluations of humans, it’s likely they can also do so toward members of their own species.
The ability to weed out a “bad apple” from a crowd, and not interact with them, serves multiple benefits, not only in helping the animals avoid potential harmful social interactions but also in discouraging others from behaving unfairly.
Dogs Become Untrusting of Liars
Dogs’ long relationship with humans has left them experts at deciphering human social and emotional cues, and a number of intriguing studies bear this out. For instance, research published in the journal Animal Cognition revealed dogs learn when a person is not trustworthy and no longer follow their commands.
In a study of 24 dogs led by Akiko Takaoka, Ph.D., of Kyoto University in Japan, all dogs initially went to a container that a researcher pointed to, under which a bit of food was hidden.5
The researcher next pointed to an empty container after showing the dogs that food was hidden under a different container. Then, in the final phase, the research again pointed the dogs toward the correct container with the hidden food.
However, by this point the dogs were no longer willing to trust him and only 8 percent went in the direction he pointed. In the final step of the experiment, the untrustworthy researcher was replaced with someone new, who pointed to a container with an appropriately hidden treat.
In this case, the dogs gave the person the benefit of the doubt and went to the container to which he pointed, showing they had not lost faith in all of humanity — only in the person who lied to them.
How to Develop a Deep and Trusting Bond With Your Dog
It’s clear that your dog is watching your behavior closely, so how can you ensure your dog views you as someone who is trustworthy and fair? Quite simply, treat your dog with love and respect, and you’ll be rewarded in return with unconditional love and devotion.
Beyond the basic acts of providing your dog with healthy food, water and exercise, make a point to interact with them on an emotional level. Dogs recognize their owners' faces and pay close attention to their cues in order to gauge their emotions.
Dogs can likely mimic their owners’ facial expressions as well, especially if they’re closely bonded, and not only can they mimic them but also likely grasp the meaning behind them. This means you should make a point to direct positive emotions toward your dog while not projecting anger or anxiety unfairly his way.
In addition, treat your dog as a member of your family. Talk to him — dogs appear to process emotional cues and meanings of words in different hemispheres of the brain, similar to humans — and make regular eye contact.
This makes your dog feel safe and triggers an increase in levels of oxytocin, aka the love hormone, in both you and your dog, facilitating feelings of trust and bonding.