Your dog probably has its fair share of obnoxious moments — stealing the food off your plate, humping guests and furniture alike, treating your entire home as its bathroom. But that doesn’t mean it’ll let you get away with your own bad behavior: According to a study recently published in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews and highlighted by New Scientist, dogs can tell when someone’s being a jerk, and they use that information when deciding how to interact with the humans around them.
For the study, the researchers recruited dog owners to act out a little scene while their pets watched. Each dog owner put on a show of trying and failing to open a container before turning to two researchers acting as bystanders and asking for a hand. Each time, one of the two other people stood by passively, while the other either helped out or refused to do so. Afterward, both of the bystanders offered the dog a treat.
In the first condition, when one of the bystanders had helped open the container, the dogs didn’t really favor the helpful one over the passive one — they were just as likely to take the treat from either of the two. But in the second condition, when the active bystander was actively being a jerk, the dogs showed a clear preference, shunning them in favor of the one who didn’t do anything. In a separate experiment, the researchers found a similar pattern with capuchin monkeys, who showed a similar bias against people who refused to offer assistance when asked.
The results, the researchers argued, suggest that both dogs and monkeys have a sense of morality similar to that of human babies: “If somebody is behaving antisocially, they probably end up with some sort of emotional reaction to it,” study author James Anderson, an animal behavior researcher at Kyoto University in Japan, told New Scientist. And that basic reaction, in turn, is the groundwork for our more nuanced understanding of right and wrong: “I think that in humans there may be this basic sensitivity towards antisocial behavior in others. Then through growing up, inculturation and teaching, it develops into a full-blown sense of morality.” And somewhere during that process, we learn that it’s not cool to pee on the kitchen floor.