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Puppies may share our moral conscience

IF YOU subscribe to the theory that humans are superior to other animals because we alone have a moral conscience, you may be barking up the wrong tree.

A new breed of behavioural experts now believes that dogs, too, have a moral compass.

Natural historian Jake Page says scientists are finally acknowledging what pet owners have told their canines all along: "Good dog."

Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, in Boulder, says dogs are full of natural goodness and have rich emotional lives. Professor Bekoff, a groundbreaking animal behaviorist, says a dog's code of ethics is on display daily in parks, backyards and family rooms.

"We're not trying to elevate animals," he said. "We're not trying to reduce humans. We're not saying we're better or worse or the same. We're saying we're not alone in having a nuanced moral system."

Page, the Colorado-based author of Do Dogs Smile?, says biology no longer dismisses dogs and other animals as "furry automatons" driven by instinct and food.

"People like Bekoff have figured out how to measure these things," he said. "It's a whole new ball game for studying dog personalities and emotions."

Professor Bekoff, co-author of the newly released Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, spent thousands of hours observing coyotes, wolves and dogs in the field.

He analysed videotapes frame by frame. The work persuaded him these animals possess empathy and compassion, the emotions upon which moral sense is built. "I'm convinced many animals can distinguish right from wrong," Professor Bekoff said, citing monkeys, wolves, elephants, dolphins and whales as other creatures that have complex social lives.

But dogs, he says, are special cases because they share in human lives.

"Dogs know they are dependent. They learn to read us," Professor Bekoff said. "Dogs develop this great sense of trust. We're tightly linked and there is something spiritual about that unity."

This intimacy and mutual influence prompted Harvard University to open a Canine Cognition Lab, where researchers attempt to gain insight into the psychology of humans and dogs.

Professor Bekoff says some behaviour experts still believe emotions, and certainly morality, are uniquely human traits — but he is witnessing a turning tide. "The amount of scepticism has dramatically dropped."

But looking for the roots of morality in animals is a difficult scientific undertaking. It begins with looking for emotions central to morality, such as empathy — understanding another's situation, feelings and motives.

In humans, emotions are centred in specific brain structures and are affected by chemicals called neurotransmitters. Mammals possess the same brain structures, affected by the same chemicals as humans.

Professor Bekoff says, as well as loyalty, dogs display a range of clear emotions including:

-A sense of fair play.

-A love of company and friends.

-Jealousy and resentment.

-Anxiety and fear.

-Embarrassment and remorse.

-Affection and compassion.

-Grief and loss.

And they have a sense of humour. "Dogs apparently laugh," Page said. The same brain structures show the same activity in laughing humans and in dogs who are enjoying themselves. A dog's laugh is a rhythmic pant.

If Professor Bekoff is right and dogs do have a moral core, says Jay McDaniel, a professor of religion at Hendrix College in Arkansas, theologians will have to develop a theology of animal minds and an ethic of animal protection.

"Animals have their own kind of spirituality, their own connection to the creator," he said.

In the 1200s, Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas wrote that animals have souls but not like the rational human soul created by God for each individual person.

Alfred North Whitehead, an influential 20th-century scientist and philosopher, recognised in 1926 that key elements of religious expression — ritual and emotion — are common to humans and animals. However, he said, belief and rationalisation are exclusively human activities.

Professor Bekoff disagrees, saying: "Dogs are thinking animals. They seek the outcomes they want, avoid the ones they don't. They solve problems. They have expectations. They have hopes."

But critics say evidence is often anecdotal.

Professor Bekoff counters that thousands of anecdotes equal data.

Warm Weather Safety Tips for Dogs

American Kennel Club Canine Partners offers tips to help dog lovers prepare their dogs for warm-weather activities.
Now that warm weather is here, it’s time to enjoy the great outdoors. To help get your dog ready, American Kennel Club Canine Partners offers the following tips:

Drop excess winter weight. Many of us pack on a few pounds during the cold winter months, and it’s no different for our dogs. If your dog is overweight, it’s time to talk to your veterinarian about a safe weight-loss regimen. Only a few extra pounds to trim? Try cutting back on high-cal treats. Try these two healthy snacks that dogs love: sliced apples and baby carrots.

Get a clean bill of health. It’s good to take your dog for a checkup if you’ve had a mostly sedentary winter or if your dog's due for his annual exam. This will ensure he’s healthy and ready to start warm-weather activities.

Build endurance. Start slowly if your dog hasn’t exercised much over the winter. Activities to try: a fast walk around the local park or a game of fetch in your yard. Aim to exercise your dog for 15 or 20 minutes at a time, and build up from there. (Be sure to watch older dogs for signs of arthritis or other hip or joint issues, and be sure to talk to your vet if you’re unsure about your dog’s condition.) Some fun warm-weather sports to try: agility, obedience and dock jumping.

Groom your dog's coat. Shedding increases during warm weather as dogs lose their winter coats. Brushing loosens and removes dead hair and dandruff, and helps control shedding. Be sure to treat your dog with a flea and tick prevention product as pests are a big issue during warmer weather (or all year, depending on where you live).

Beware of the grass. Your dog will finally be able to run and play on the grass, but be careful where you let him romp. The chemicals used on lawns don’t belong on your dog’s paws – or in your house. Make sure to clean your dog’s paw pads after he plays on grass – at home or at the park.

Lost your dog? Canine first aid expert offers search tips

"I can't find my dog" is a sentence no dog owner ever wants to say, but it happens. Your dog could get lost while hiking, after getting scared by a loud noise or after a gate has been left open.

"When you notice your dog has disappeared, panic can set in and you will not think clearly", says Michelle Sevigny, founder of Dogsafe Canine First Aid and author of Operation Find Fido: How to Find a Lost Dog Fast, "so it is essential that you have a written action plan before it happens."

Sevigny, a former Vancouver police officer, offers the following tips:

- Design "lost dog" flyers in advance so you can start your search immediately. Use "lost dog" as your heading and add your dog's name, breed and description, if unusual or a mixed breed, plus contact phone numbers. Include two colour photos that accurately portray your dog, a head shot and full body shot. Write "still missing" for date last seen and leave a blank space for "last location seen" and add "but could be anywhere." Add "do not chase" and write that although your dog may be friendly, while lost, the dog could be cautious and chasing puts it at risk. The goal of posting flyers is to get reported sightings to allow you to focus your search, not to have your dog captured by strangers.

- Remain at the last place your dog was seen and have a volunteer replace you before you leave in the event your dog returns. Have a volunteer stay at the most likely places your dog may return to such as the trail entrance, your home or your car.

- As soon as possible, conduct a thorough search around the area where your dog was last seen using as many volunteers as possible. Stop periodically to listen, especially if in the bush, as an injured dog may hide from view. Use a favourite squeaky toy or treats for temptation. Flashlights are essential at night as an injured dog may purposely hide.

- Post lost dog flyers everywhere, including at locations where people browse or wait. Don't forget to keep track of where you have posted flyers. Go door to door in the area where your dog was last seen. Give copies of flyers to willing newspaper delivery people, school crossing guards, postal workers, couriers, etc., as they are out and about every day.

- Contact local shelters, animal control, veterinarians, rescue groups and other dog businesses to report your lost dog and increase awareness.

- Place a lost dog ad in the local newspapers, post on Facebook and create an e-mail that you can forward to all your dog friends.

- Be prepared for phone calls about sightings 24/7 and change your voice mail message to "If you are calling about our lost dog, please leave the exact location and time of any sightings and a call back number if you wish," to prompt information. If you receive a call from someone stating your dog has been found, keep safety in mind. Meet in a public place and go with another person. Be aware of scams such as anyone requesting you send money out of town before your dog will be shipped home.

Use rewards to guide dogs’ response to basic commands

Megan E. Maxwell

April 11, 2011 9:03am EDT

Dog owners cherish their canine companions for many reasons and interact with them using a variety of styles and training strategies. In turn, some dogs are relatively easy to train, while others present their owners with greater training challenges and frustrating behavioral habits.

In either case, one of the most commonly prescribed and generally beneficial training strategies is one that every owner can, and should, employ with his or her dog on a daily basis.

This strategy goes by various names in the dog training and behavior literature: integrated compliance training, the No Free Lunch program, or the Nothing in Life is Free program, for example.

By whatever name you call it, this training program emphasizes the importance of canine compliance to commands within the context of the everyday household routine.

Every dog should learn to respond to basic commands in exchange for a variety of rewarding items or activities.

Owners should start this program as soon as they bring their young pup or newly adopted adult dog into their home, and should continue following these basic household rules throughout their pet’s life.

Begin by compiling a list of reinforcers: things your dog enjoys. These could include tangible items such as bones, toys, treats, balls, or meals. It could also include activities, such as car rides, walks, belly rubs, or interactive play with family members or other dogs. Have each family member contribute to this list by thinking of things they each give to the dog or do with the dog that the dog seems to love. Your family should then implement the rule that these items or activities are provided to the dog only when she does something for them.

For example, each time she approaches you for attention, ask her to sit before praising and reaching out to pet her. Each time you fill her food bowl, ask her to sit before placing it on the floor. The same rule can apply to any of the items on your “reinforcer” list.

Before you throw that tennis ball, she must sit. Before you open the car door to let her jump in, she must sit. Before you hook her leash on for a walk, she must sit. You get the idea.

If your dog doesn’t already know how to sit, you will need to teach this first. (Many dogs can easily learn this response in exchange for treats.)

Even if your dog will sit for treats, keep in mind that she probably will not generalize this skill to new environments (e.g., outside of the kitchen, by the treat jar) or to new people (e.g., your child issuing the command instead of you).

This means you should first practice her “sit” training in a variety of environments and with other people as “trainers” before expecting her to follow your commands throughout the course of daily activities.

In the same way that a well-adjusted child listens to his or her parents’ directives (and hopefully receives positive reinforcement for doing so), a well-behaved pet has learned that she can benefit from following her owner’s directions. When consistently implemented, this training can enhance your role as leader in your relationship with your pet using positive teaching strategies.

Following this Nothing in Life is Free program, in combination with meeting your dog’s medical, physical and social needs, can set you well on the path to a healthy and mutually beneficial relationship with your beloved canine companion.

Megan E. Maxwell is a certified applied animal behaviorist. She owns Pet Behavior Change LLC ( in State College.