Dog Lab investigates fairness in dogs

Jack having fun with the Dog Lab at Animal Haven

Last week, our Dog Cognition Lab met at Animal Haven to continue a study investigating a dog’s concept of fairness. We were lucky enough to be joined by 10 wonderful dogs and their gracious owners.

Attributing a sense of fairness to dogs is common among dog owners: “My dog will pitch a fit if I pay too much attention to another dog in front of her.” Or, “My dog will sometimes act out if he thinks he’s being treated unfairly.” The implication is, of course, that dogs have an understanding of how they are treated in comparison to others, and owners often believe dogs want to be treated fairly.

We are exploring whether dogs have an aversion to an unfair situation, just as humans do. A few years back, researchers examined the topic of inequity in dogs (Range et al., 2009), prompting our Dog Lab to continue this exploration.

Our study relies on the participation of companion dogs and their owners. In the study, trainers reward dog behavior with differing amounts of treats. Our control dog is the wonderful Finnegan, Professor Horowitz’s dog, and the subject dog could be your dog! In the study, both dogs approach a trainer and are asked to sit. When both dogs receive the same number of treats for sitting, the trainer is considered “fair”, and when the dogs receive a different number of treats, the trainer is considered “unfair.” The subject dog (your dog) always receives the same number of treats. But sometimes Finnegan, the control dog, is treated differently, either receiving three treats from an over rewarding trainer or zero treats from an under rewarding trainer.

Then comes the fun part! The subject dog (your dog) gets to run loose and freely choose the trainer that he or she prefers (as defined by who the dog approaches). Which trainer will the dogs approach?

For dogs, our studies involve getting treats and meeting new people! Would you like your dog to be part of the Dog Lab’s research? If so, simply sign up online or send an e-mail to dogcognitionstudy@gmail.com. We we will gladly let you know when we have a study going on near you.

Check out some photos from our day at Animal Haven!

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