Humans do the wildest things to animals—stick them with experimental drugs, mash them into cheap nuggets, mount their severed heads on dining room walls. Against this backdrop of chaos and mass extermination the Puppy Bowl seems fairly benign, as do all those other events, like the Kentucky Derby, where animals are forced to play sports for our amusement. We know that humans like these games, especially when their bets pay off; but how do the animals feel? What’s, say, on a horse’s mind, when it finishes first in a race? Can an animal have some sense that it’s won something, or, for that matter, lost?
For this week’s Giz Asks, we set out to learn exactly that, speaking with psychologists, biologists and animal scientists who have spent their lives trying to understand these stubbornly untalkative creatures. As it turns out, animals do have some sense of whether they’ve won or lost a given game, despite not quite knowing what a game actually is.
Professor and Area Head, Behavior Neuroscience, Arizona State University
I think that most dogs do have some natural sense of competition—they chase each other, they play tug of war. But when you put them into games like the Puppy Bowl, they just don’t have the smarts to grasp what they’re supposed to be doing. I’m pretty certain that the dogs in the Puppy Bowl haven’t got a clue what’s going on. All they have is that little bit of intrinsic competition—they’re interested in being the one with the ball. But human games are made for our intellect. The dogs don’t have the faintest idea of what they’re supposed to be doing there, unless, by coincidence, the winning dog happens to be the one left holding the toy. In that case, that dog thinks “yeah, I’m the boss, I’m the winner, because I’m the one with the ball.” They don’t think “I’m the winner because my team scored the most points.” But I think they do have a sense of who won those little competitions they make for themselves, that suit their intellectual level—like tug of war, or wrestling over a steak.
Dogs are not hunting animals, but they are descended by and large from hunting animals, so they have a few of the hunting instincts left in them in a weak form, and that then takes the form of chasing and catching and grasping and pulling and all of that kind of stuff. These games are faint echoes of the hunting behaviours of their ancestors.
And I should think that as well as a feeling of success, they can experience failure in their own simple games. But everything in a dog’s life is pretty short-lived. It’s over quickly. I doubt that they’re keeping score, except in a very vague sense—they probably know there are certain dogs who tend to beat them in tug of war or chasing a ball or whatever.
“Psychologist B. F. Skinner trained pigeons to play ping pong, but I would guess that the pigeons only cared that each point gave them a food pellet.”
Associate Professor and Equine Extension Specialist, Animal Science, University of Connecticut
My expertise is with horses, and I would have to say that I don’t think that they realize when they win, but they’re very good at reading body language, and as a prey animal really do try to please people. They do realise, upon winning, that the person or people they are performing for are very happy, and they then feel happy as well. With horses, kind words or other acts of kindness, as well as a release of pressure (think releasing the rein after asking them to stop) are all rewards that make them feel calm and relaxed or happy.
Many horses are bred to perform in a certain way and there are definitely racehorses who respond to seeing a competitor moving up on them with a burst of speed (and some horses that fade back to last once another horse starts to beat them) so it does seem that at least some horses can and do feel a sense of competition although just like with people, horses are individuals and all respond in their own unique way.
Professor of Psychology, University of Wisconsin, and professional dog trainer
For a dog, competition occurs over resources like food or a toy prey object. Winning for them is obtaining the resource. I think they are competitive, but in response to a limited resource. It is something they do, but I don’t think it is something they spend much time thinking or having much feelings about. So I guess I don’t think that they know (or care) about the winning. The resource is all that matters.
Associate Professor, Biology, Columbia College Ohio
Although there’s no way to truly know what animals are thinking, we can use observation and our understanding of the evolution of behaviour to try to interpret what they do know. For example, in most wild populations of animal species competition is a constant fact of life. They compete for food, territory, and especially mates, which is critical for survival and continuation of that population.
Now, if we’re making animals compete, we’re likely talking about domesticated or companion animals. Of course, some of these companion animals have actually co-evolved with us and have therefore learned to respond to us. Dogs can read our emotions and even our facial expressions. In fact, several studies using eye-tracking software have concluded that dogs read our faces in the same way that humans read each others’ faces. This is thought to be the best way to recognise emotion, given that we tend to express emotions more intensely on the left side of our faces. This is probably due in part to our evolutionary history as a social species.
It’s also been shown that dogs do not read other dogs’ faces in the same way, suggesting that they are trying to understand human emotions in an effort to react to us. Over time, it has become evolutionarily advantageous for these species to be able to understand human intent. For example, it made more sense for a dog to avoid an aggressive human being and spend more time with one who may provide food, shelter, and even affection. Even though it’s entirely possible that animals like dogs or horses have some sense of competition and of winning and losing, it’s most likely mediated by our own reaction to a win or a loss. To understand you’ve won probably requires an understanding that another has lost. This is a complex behaviour that may require a theory of mind. Do I think they know they’ve won? Not necessarily, but rather they likely know they performed a task that was asked of them.
Professor and Assistant Department Head, Psychology, James Madison University
There is evidence from many species that individuals do behave differently in future aggressive encounters based on whether they won or lost a previous encounter. These are known in the research literature as “winner effects” and “loser effects.” According to one of my textbooks (Dugatkin) “winning an aggressive interaction increases the probability of future wins (so-called winner effects) and losing an aggressive interaction increases the probability of losing future fights (so-called loser effects)“ (p. 497). According to Dugatkin, loser effects are more common than winner effects. These effects have been documented in many species (examples include blue-footed boobies, crickets, some species of fish, etc). Another place where losing and winning affects future behaviour is in dominance hierarchies, where individuals who have repeated aggressive interactions eventually form a dominance relationship such that they typically rarely engage in actual fighting. The subordinate animal may simply submit to the dominant, or sometimes the dominant may show a particular facial expression or body posture that elicits submission from the other individual. These dominance relationships can be stable for long periods of time. Dominance hierarchies have been studied for decades in many species like non-human primates (macaques, chimpanzees, etc). One adaptive function of both of these processes is a decrease in actual physical aggression and therefore less energy expenditure and lowered chances of being injured on the part of both individuals.
However, that doesn’t really get at what animals actually know about this, or how they “feel” about winning/losing. It does affect their future behaviour, and in some cases we know it also affects their hormonal status. So, to the extent that those things reflect internal emotional states, then maybe there are some feelings and emotions attached to it. But I don’t know enough to say what those feelings might be. Could be anything from “Darn, that didn’t work out” to “I am truly a worthless cricket.”
“When monogamous pairs of birds, such as geese, win a conflict with a rival pair, they will often perform loud and elaborate joint displays, as if celebrating their success.”
Professor, Animal Ethics and Welfare, University of Pennsylvania and author of The Domestic Dog
Most animals—even fish—have some understanding of winning and losing in aggressive encounters with others of their kind. Studies involving staged conflicts have shown that previous experience of winning a fight tends to increase the probability of winning in later contests, while previous experience of losing tends to have the opposite effect. This suggests that animals have some sense of their own competitive ability and are more inclined to confront a rival if they’ve had some success in the past. It’s also known that these effects are underpinned by changes in the levels of circulating hormones, such as testosterone and cortisol.
It is not known whether animals also experience a feeling triumph or elation when they win in a competitive encounter the way humans do, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they might. For example, when monogamous pairs of birds, such as geese, win a conflict with a rival pair, they will often perform loud and elaborate joint displays, as if celebrating their success. The Nobel prize-winning ethologist, Konrad Lorenz, even referred to these displays as “triumph ceremonies.”
Many animal species also enjoy competition in the context of play. However, by definition, true play is non-serious so the goal is less about winning and more to do with keeping the game going. A good example of this kind of activity is the annual “puppy bowl” in which the puppies run around and wrestle and compete for toys but there’s no overall winner of loser at the end of the game; just a pile of happily exhausted puppies. When played at an informal or amateur level, human games and sports are sometimes like this, but professional sports tend to be much more serious; almost a proxy for warfare. As far as we know, no other animal species engages in this kind of organised competition with clearly defined winners and losers.
The collective excitement that sporting animals, such as racing greyhounds or thoroughbred horses, seem to derive from participating in races may also be more akin to play than to serious competition. It’s certainly not at all obvious whether winners and losers are actually aware of winning and losing, or that they care. Their owners and trainers may think that they do, but it’s likely that they’re simply projecting their own triumph or disappointment onto the animal.
Professor, Psychology, Brooklyn College
Competition is a ritualised form of aggression, and both aggression and ritualisation are common among animals. Ritualisation means that aggression is made to obey rules that make injury less likely. Just as fencers use blunted swords, deer antlers are meant to interlock rather than pierce. Thus it becomes possible to decide who wins without anyone getting too hurt. Animals can have many reasons for aggression: food, territory, mates, social dominance. Human competitions are often a ritualisation of social dominance - winners gain social status and losers... lose it. Animals that do not fight for social status may not get this motive, but may compete for other reasons - and they seem to know well when they win or lose. Defeated animals, for example, often act submissively to signal that the fight is over and avoid further injury.
Where humans stand out is not in the competitive motive, but in the extreme diversity of competitions we have invented: from curling to chess olympiads, sports and games number in the thousands. Other animals, in contrast, stick with a few tried and true fighting rituals. It would be very hard to convince two stags to run a race rather than to push each other, antlers locked. We can teach animals new competitions, such as dog agility, but the animals’ goal in these is often to obtain praise from their human trainer, or food, or both. These human inventions probably do not feel the same to the animal as their natural competitions. Psychologist B. F. Skinner trained pigeons to play ping pong, but I would guess that the pigeons only cared that each point gave them a food pellet.
Professor Emeritus, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado and the author of Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do
There’s no doubt nonhuman animals have a sense that they’ve “won” something when they need to compete for a limited resource for other individuals—a territory an altercation, food, a place to sleep, a mate, or the freedom to move around without worrying about being hassled by others, for example. But we really don’t and can’t know if what they’re feeling is like what we feel when we’ve won something. In fact, it really doesn’t matter if we share this sense of winning with other animals, because even if we don’t, they still behave as if they know they’ve won or gotten something that others also wanted.
For example, quite often, when animals compete (and sometimes fight) over food, the winner takes what she or he has gotten and eats in peace, often without being threatened or harassed by others. Possession in a number of animal species is law — they may be feeling something like, “it’s mine, so leave me alone.” I’ve seen this in wild coyotes and free-ranging dogs so, in that sense, an individual has won something, but I don’t think they think much about it in those terms. Likewise, in some species, winning an altercation that may or not include a fight gives an individual more freedom to move around and not worry about being harassed by others. I’ve seen wild coyotes and dogs behave just like this after there’s been a stand-down involving threats, growls, and perhaps a brief and very mild shoving match, after which one individual knows they’ve got the freedom to go anywhere they wish. So, once again, in that sense, they’ve won.
There are some examples in which an animal wins something or someone and parades around and looks like they’re showing off, as we often do. However, I don’t think they’re saying anything like, “I’m better than you” or “I won, you lost” or “I’m a winner and you’re a loser,” although their behaviour shows that they know that they have gotten something the other individual(s) has not. So do animals know they’ve won something? Yes, but perhaps not like we know it.