According to the Bonnie Bergin — founder of Canine Companions for Independence, and my professor at Bergin University of Canine Studies — dogs possess a sense of morality. And, she says, they develop through stages of moral development in much the same way people do. She explains the stages as follows:
When a dog is in early puppyhood, and/or the initial phase of positive reinforcement training, the dog responds to commands viscerally, from a purely primal state of being. In other words using the pungent scent of food combined with a dog’s acute olfactory sensibility, a trainer can lure a dog’s body into a desired position. For example, if a trainer wants a dog to sit, they strategically place a bit of food in front of the puppy’s nose, then slowly move it upward into position above the puppy’s head. This lures the puppy physically into a seated position, at which point the puppy is rewarded with the food.
Stage 2: Tit for Tat
Dr. Bergin calls Stage 2 the “tit for tat” stage. A dog in Stage 2 will work for its trainer, but only because he or she knows there is a food reward to be earned. An example of this is when a trainer shows a dog she has food, enticing him to do what she asks. She asks for a sit, the dog sits, she rewards the dog with the food. During Stage 2 of a dog’s training process, the trainer will be hard-pressed to get the desired behavior out of the dog unless or until she has treats in her possession.
Stage 3: The Desire to Please
When a dog enters Stage 3 of moral development, he begins performing out of the desire to please. This is the stage during which a trainer will reinforce with treats only intermittently, and with verbal praise and physical touch the rest of the time. This is the stage during which the trainer begins to phase out treats, having built a functional foundation in the dog’s brain that will later evolve into a more in-depth understanding in his mind.
Stage 4: It’s All About the Rules
During Stage 4, a dog begins to perform commands because he (on some level) understands it is the “rule” for him to comply with what is asked of him. Here is when a sense of moral allegiance really comes into play. During this stage, a dog will work for praise alone; he will even work for no praise, although a dog should always be commended for doing right! But in Stage 4, performing the commands he knows has become an intrinsic way of behaving for the dog.
Stage 5: Morally Right
In Stage 5, doing what is morally “right” trumps all, even following the rules should they conflict with the greater good. For example, if a dog has been given the command to Sit and Stay, but breaks command to run after a child that has wandered into oncoming traffic, the dog is acting at a Stage 5 level of moral capacity. For a “human comparison”, imagine that a woman’s husband has a disease for which there is one cure. That cure is in a vial, locked up in a medical facility, and would cost her $1000 to purchase. She doesn’t have the money, and her husband will die within twenty four hours if she does not get him the medicine. She breaks in and steals the vial of medicine. In this case, the woman’s moral obligation to save her husband’s life trumps her lawful obligation to be an upstanding citizen.
Any way you look at it, it is clear that dogs are extremely intuitive and emotionally intelligent, especially where their human partners are concerned. Furthermore, it happens so often that whether a dog is specially trained or not, they do the right thing — often saving the day — when it really counts.