Reputation is an important component of the social interactions of animals living in groups and plays a significant role in establishing cooperation. However, according to a new study led by the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, dogs have significant difficulty remembering instances of human generosity in food donation situations and may therefore lack the concept of a giver’s reputation.
While previous research has argued that dogs cooperate with humans because they can form an idea of their reputation — such as whether a particular person typically offers or refuses food — new research suggests that this may not be the case. The scientists designed a series of experiments to test this ability in dogs, as well as their closest ancestors, wolves.
In the first experiment, animals were asked to observe the interaction of two people and another animal, while the “generous” person offered food, and the “selfish” person refused it. The second experiment tested whether animals develop reputation after direct interaction with generous and selfish people.
Statistical analysis of the results showed that in most cases, the generous person did not have a better reputation with either dogs or wolves after indirect observation or direct experience of people’s generosity regarding food.
“We found that dogs and wolves at the group level did not distinguish between a generous or self-serving partner after indirect or direct experience, but wolves were more attentive to a generous person during the observation stage, and some dogs and wolves preferred a generous partner, at least after association. indirect and direct experience,” the researchers write.
“Our study suggests that reputation formation in animals may be more difficult than expected, and we highlight the importance of context when studying reputation formation in animals.”
However, some significant limitations of the study include the fact that it only looked at the behavior of a small number of animals – six dogs and nine wolves – and that these animals were not deprived of food prior to the experiments.
“In this study, there was only a small cost of not receiving a food reward if the animals chose a selfish mate,” the study authors explain. “In addition, the trainer fed the subjects each time they returned to their starting point for the next test, and the animals were not starved of food before the test, so they may not have been very motivated to choose a generous partner.”
Further studies are needed to confirm these findings with a large number of animals placed in various conditions, as well as clarifying how animals tend to evaluate and act on a person’s reputation when they are in a dangerous or stressful situation, or if they are especially hungry.
The study was published in the journal PLoS One.