Do dogs understand 'right and wrong'?

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

So, I've recently seen a post being shared a lot around social media with two images. One says that it is a myth that corrections are necessary in dog training and the other goes on to say that dogs do not understand right and wrong as it is a human construct. It then goes on to say that punishing or correcting dogs isn't teaching them that a behaviour is 'wrong' but is instead teaching them that said thing must be avoided as it signals an aversive. Today, we're going to talk about why these statements for the most part, are actually inaccurate.


So let's start off by talking about why 'right and wrong' actually aren't human constructs. Within our social structure of society, we have created a very clear system that enables humans to understand what is acceptable and what is not, why this is the case and what punishment or correction you will receive for breaking these rules. Things like not stealing things and not causing harm to other people or animals (whether that be emotional or physical) are just a couple of the very basic 'wrong' behaviours within our society that warrant punishment if they are broken. However, humans were not the first to create a social structure outlining punishment or corrections for unwanted behaviours.


Within the animal kingdom, pretty much every species of animal has a social structure which is adhered to by each animal within that structure. This is not to be confused as the same as 'dominance theory' as generally, all animals are not in a constant battle to be the 'alpha' but that's a topic to delve into deeper another day. There is however a social structure among each species which has huge similarities amongst predator and prey alike that enable animals to live in harmony and not delve into chaos without any rules or boundaries within themselves.


Let's start off with a basic example within dogs as they are the ones under debate here. If you observe two dogs playing you'll get a great example of social structure in action! Two dogs playing, especially two dogs who may not have played together before or who don't know each other well, will constantly be testing the boundaries to see what is 'right' and what is 'wrong' in the context of the game that they are playing. They will try out different play styles that have worked with other dogs or that they enjoy to see how the other dog reacts to it and that will determine how these two dogs play together in the moment and in the future if they were to play together again. There may be play bowing, barking, running, feet bopping and gentle wrestling and nipping depending on the dogs preferred play style and breed and they are always looking to determine how the other dog reacts to see if this style is 'acceptable' or not.


If one of the dog's doesn't like something, they will exhibit one of a few different behaviours to let the other dog know:

  1. The dog may turn their head away or walk away from the other dog in an attempt to avoid the unwanted interaction

  2. the dog may growl or lip curl at the other dog, letting them know that they are no happy with their behaviour

  3. The dog may offer a physical correction showing what looks like a 'bite' action at the other dog but without actually biting them as the intention isn't to harm the other dog but to express that they are not happy with the other dogs behaviour


All of these, some extremely subtle behaviours, are 'correcting' unwanted behaviour in each other and teaching the other dog that the behaviour that they are exhibiting is unwanted and 'wrong'.

 

So, if dog's cannot understand 'right and wrong', how is it that within their social structure they themselves correct unwanted behaviour? If dog's don't understand the concept of 'right and wrong', surely they wouldn't use corrections to stop unwanted behaviour right? Or if, like this post says, dog's don't understand 'right and wrong', why would they use corrections at all? If the aim of correcting behaviour is to teach the learner that a behaviour is wrong and this isn't a concept that dog's understand, does that mean all dogs (and therefore all animals too) are by default reactive and anti-social? And if this is the case, then how is it that dogs are able to live comfortably together and other animals all across the Earth are able to live together in groups, for the most part, harmoniously?



In 2010, Marc Bekoff (an American Biologist, Ethologist and Behavioural Ecologist) and Jessica Pierce (An American Biothicist and Philosopher) published a book called 'Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. In this book, they write about the years of behavioural and cognitive scientific studies revealing that animals exhibit a broad repertoire of moral behaviours. They write about how animals are incredibly adept social beings relying on rules of conduct to navigate intricate social networks that are essential to their survival. I'd urge anyone who professionally works with animals or anyone who owns animals or trains them to read it as it very clearly outlines how animals fully understand 'right and wrong' and rely on these rules and boundaries to survive and thrive in their world.


'There is no moral gap between humans and other species; morality is an evolved trait that we unquestionably share with other social mammals.'

-Bekoff and Pierce


This is respected, scientific evidence that dogs, and other mammals DO in fact fully understand the concept of 'right and wrong' and furthermore, rely on it for survival.


 

Now, the final thing we are going to talk briefly about is the final aspect of the post. The question as to whether 'corrections' or 'punishment' should in fact be used in dog (or any other animal) training at all. Based off of the countless studies and the law of learning, we understand that dog's understand right and wrong and that correcting or punishing a behaviour is the most effective way to stop unwanted behaviours. So the basic answer is that correcting behaviour is part and parcel of the learning process and has the science to back up it's use in animal training and behavioural rehabilitation. Does that mean we need to be beating our dogs into submission? Absolutely not! Are there perfectly humane and beneficial ways of correcting a dog's behaviour so that they understand that something isn't wanted and instead learn an alternative behaviour in a positive learning scenario? Absolutely!


Just as with children, correcting behaviour is part and parcel of learning and needs to be a part of our training process for our animals too. Even gentle parenting techniques ensure a child knows when a behaviour is 'wrong' or unwanted without hitting, shouting or using using other harsh punishment techniques on them. The same can be used with our dogs to ensure they learn in the most positive and yet effective way possible. You don't need to be yelling at your dog, hitting them or harshly punishing them for every wrong move. They do however need to be told in some way, what a wrong answer is otherwise, how will they know to look for an alternative answer if they are never told the answer they have already given isn't correct?


If you'd like to do any further reading on some of the principles I've spoken on today, I have linked some of the studies I have used myself below along with our blog talking about the science behind dog training.


And if you have any questions on the topics spoken about here, or would like some help with your dog, please do get in contact and a member of our team would be more than happy to help!

 

Further reading:

Social Structure in animals: http://whitelab.biology.dal.ca/hw/Whitehead_Analsoc.pdf

Animal morality (exert from Wild Justice: The Morality of Animals): https://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/041612.html

Wild Justice Book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wild-Justice-Moral-Lives-Animals/dp/0226041638/ref=asc_df_0226041638/?tag=googshopuk-21&linkCode=df0&hvadid=334375081871&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=519796661326604058&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=1007009&hvtargid=pla-477791673501&psc=1&th=1&psc=1

The science behind dog training: https://www.holistichounds.uk/post/the-science-behind-dog-training