Yesterday, my Standard Poodle, Raja, got into the garbage while I was gone. The garbage can has a tight lid on it, opened by a foot treadle, and to make sure that the can was dogproof, I put a plastic gallon water jug on top of the lid whenever no one is in the house. Raja knocked over the garbage can, sending the water jug flying, and somehow pried open the lid to get at the contents of the can. Fortunately, there was nothing in there but wet paper towels, so he couldn’t hurt himself by eating decaying garbage. He did have a great time shredding the paper towels and scattering the shreds over the living room rug.
On previous occasions when this happened, I reprimanded Raja by scolding him in a deep, low voice, pointing to the shreds of garbage and telling him “No!” several times. I do not believe in hitting dogs, so the only punishment that Raja received was my stern and deep-voiced “No.” Throughout his life, Raja has gotten into the garbage perhaps once or twice a year, so this was a relatively unusual event, triggered perhaps by absolute boredom.
When I walked into the house, Raja greeted me with his usual enthusiastic tail-wagging at the door. I petted him, as is our usual custom, and then stepped into the living room, where I saw the shreds of paper.
I simply pointed to the garbage, and looked at Raja. He immediately started to cringe, crouching down low, with his tail between his legs. I did not say a word, but kept pointing to the papers scattered around. Raja then lay down on the floor and rolled over, exposing his belly, with his front feet folded up and his eyes closed.
When I have been asked about the proper thing to do with a dog who has gotten into the garbage hours or minutes before the dog’s people come home, I have always said that the best thing is to do nothing, because by then the dog does not remember having strewn things around, and punishing the dog after the fact would be counterproductive. I have always said that the dog does not at that point understand what the punishment is about, and would only get confused if punished. This is straight out of classical learning theory, where a response has to follow an event immediately for the lesson to be learned.
However, here was Raja clearly acting as if he knew that he had done something wrong. Not only that, but he was apparently remembering our last lesson about garbage from at least half a year previously.
Does that mean that he knows right from wrong? And, in the larger picture, do dogs in general know right from wrong? In Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, a new book that is due to be released in March, Marc Bekoff and his coauthor Jessica Pierce argue that dogs and other animals have a sense of right and wrong, and a moral sense of fairness and empathy. Although the main thrust of the book deals with animals in general, Bekoff and Pierce have some examples from the behavior of dogs. They mention a case of a larger, stronger male dog playing with a smaller, weaker male and restraining his bites so as to not injure the smaller dog. They also mention the work of Friedericke Range and her colleagues in Austria, who have shown that dogs will refuse to work for food if they see that other dogs are getting more for doing the same thing. Bekoff and Pierce give a number of other examples, ranging from elephants to mice, that show that animals have a sense of morality, compassion, and a sense of right or wrong.
So how about Raja and the garbage? Does he have a sense of right and wrong? I would say yes. I think that he knows perfectly well that he is not allowed to get into the garbage, and perhaps feels a sense of remorse or shame when he is called on this issue. What’s more, he remembers prior scoldings, even though they happened a long time ago, and knows that they apply to the current situation.
Just like I still remember being scolded as a kid for getting into things that my parents told me not to touch.