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Dogs Think “No Fair,” Too

Clever Dog Lab inequity study

By: Karin Sinkevicius

Last Updated:


Treat a dog like a child and she might start acting
like one, at least when it comes to a sense of fairness.
According to a study conducted in the Clever Dog Lab
at the University of Vienna, Austria, dogs, like children,
think “no fair.” According to Friederike Range, lead
researcher: “Animals react to inequity [and] to avoid
stress, we should try to avoid treating them differently.”
This kind of social awareness in the pack can be traced
back to dogs’ common ancestor, the wolf.

Any dog owner can attest to their dog being more
responsive when a reward is offered, but what if there
are two dogs and only one is rewarded? The experiment,
published in The Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences serial, involved pairs of dogs working with a
human tester and a bowl filled half with sausage and half
with bread. Each dog was asked to “give a paw” and then
rewarded or not. When one dog received a reward and the
other didn’t, the unrewarded canine stopped playing. But
when both got a reward, they both continued to perform.

A similar experiment has been conducted with primates
but, unlike the primates who stopped performing when
they were offered bread instead of sausage, the dogs didn’t
care which treat they received, only that they were being
rewarded. The three resulting theories as to why the dogs
exhibited no treat preference were (1) the potential of
receiving a reward at all was so great as to override preference;
(2) the effect of daily obedience training conditioned
responsiveness; and (3) working in a pack, even as small
as a pair, increased motivation to receive a reward.

Clive Wynne, associate psychology professor at the
University of Florida, contests the findings that dogs
show no reward preference because a control test wasn’t
conducted as it was with the primates, who were first
shown the better treat and then asked to (but didn’t!) perform
for what was viewed as an inferior reward. Wynne
grants that dogs are, however, perceptive to the actions of
human beings and an intelligent species. But we already
knew that.


Last Updated:

By: Karin Sinkevicius
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