If you share your life with a dog, you’re probably not surprised by the news from the University of Colorado, Boulder. After the actions of coyotes, wolves and dogs in the field were observed and thousands of hours of video were analyzed, the finding are in. Hold on to your seat. Canines exhibit empathy and compassion, the main emotions upon which a moral code is built. In other words, the study claims that the furball who stole your bagel this morning has morals.

Professor emeritus and animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff explains to the Denver Post, “We’re not trying to elevate animals. 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.” 

Bekoff acknowledges that dogs are likely not the only animals with an ethical code, but believes “dogs are special cases; they share in human lives.” Through his research Bekoff sensed that dogs know they are dependent on people and learn to understand and trust us. “We’re tightly linked, and there’s something spiritual about that unity,” he explains. 

To truly understand the dog’s moral capacity, Bekoff began by looking for the emotional foundations of morality. His study questioned: Do dogs understand another’s feelings or motives? Do they know right or wrong? One example that shows they do: Play. “Play hones cognitive skills and later helps in hunting and mating. And play would not be possible without cooperation and trust,” Bekoff said.

Of course, those with claims about animal emotion and morality are bound to get some grief, even esteemed academics like Bekoff. His critics downplay studies of animal thinking and morality as simply too anecdotal, too anthropomorphic. But Bekoff stands by his results. In his opinion, data is attained through thousands of anecdotes. And attributing human characteristics to animals is misleading considering the shared history of humans and dogs. 

Bekoff shares his findings as the co-author of Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. Here are few highlights of pup emotions and morality at work.

Do you recognize any of these behaviors? 


Fair Play. Dogs don’t like cheaters. They like to have friends and play together. Big dogs make sure little dogs will want to play with them by handicapping themselves for the sake of their little playmate. 

Jealousy. Dogs get jealous, resentful or saddened by unfair behavior, such as when a rival gets more or better treats or treatment.

Making Mistakes. Dogs are embarrassed when they make a mistake or clutzy move. They feel badly when they’ve done something wrong. If they’ve been wronged, they remember and seek justice or choose to forgive. 

Compassion. Woof Report knows this one for sure. Dogs have affection and compassion for their animal and human friends and family. They defend loved ones. They grieve their losses. They have hope.


The Scoop: 

Read more about Bekoff’s recent work in the The Seattle Times

Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce

Thank you to our Woof Report Friend Isaac for the photo.