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Published: Sunday, 5/24/2009

What would Rover do?

IT WILL come as no surprise to dog

owners that, according to animal researchers, man's best friend is a creature of remarkable emotional depth and complexity able to experience joy, to laugh, and even to tell right from wrong.

Anyone who's seen the look of canine remorse at the admonishment "bad dog," been the object of a whole-dog wag greeting at the door, or had a furry companion offer quiet comfort at a time of sadness was already aware that, compared to most humans, canines are paragons of virtue. Still, it's gratifying to have that belief reinforced by scientific study.

A recent Denver Post story highlighted the work of University of Colorado animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff, who says dogs, like humans, have a "nuanced moral system."

Rover, Mr. Bekoff maintains, knows right from wrong and enforces fair play in games with other dogs, even excluding cheaters and gearing the games so that smaller dogs have the opportunity to compete.

Rover also experiences jealousy, embarrassment, and fear, and recognizes unfair treatment. He seeks positive outcomes and avoids negative outcomes, shows affection, empathy, anxiety, and grief, and displays loyalty and protectiveness.

Critics will claim that dog owners and researchers such as Mr. Bekoff infer human characteristics where there are none and that Rover is motivated by reward and punishment, not an ethical sense.

But tales of canines warning their masters of danger or seeking help for a sick or injured person tell another story. And who could observe a dog looking for cues from its master on how to act and responding excitedly to praise and not conclude that when the owner says "good dog," his four-legged friend already knew it.

Indeed, there would be far fewer problems in the world if humans, before they acted, asked themselves: What would Rover do?

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