Every dog owner knows a pooch can learn the house rules–and when she breaks one, her subsequent groveling is usually ingratiating enough to ensure quick forgiveness. But few people have stopped to ask why dogs have such a keen sense of right and wrong. Chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates regularly make the news when researchers, logically looking to our closest relatives for traits similar to our own, uncover evidence of their instinct for fairness. But our work has suggested that wild canine societies may be even better analogues for early hominid groups–and when we study dogs, wolves and coyotes, we discover behaviors that hint at the roots of human morality.
Morality, as we define it in our book Wild Justice , is a suite of interrelated other-regarding behaviors that cultivate and regulate social interactions. These behaviors, including altruism, tolerance, forgiveness, reciprocity and fairness, are readily evident in the egalitarian way wolves and coyotes play with one another. Canids (animals in the dog family) follow a strict code of conduct when they play, which teaches pups the rules of social engagement that allow their societies to succeed. Play also builds trusting relationships among pack members, which enables divisions of labor, dominance hierarchies and cooperation in hunting, raising young, and defending food and territory. Because this social organization closely resembles that of early humans (as anthropologists and other experts believe it existed), studying canid play may offer a glimpse of the moral code that allowed our ancestral societies to grow and flourish.