Nice Or Nasty – I Bark As I Find

Being nice or nasty to a strange dog is going to fix its opinion of you in short order. But that is direct experience. Now the big question is do our doggy friends decide on your reputation by watching your behavior to others?

We take a lot of effort to establish and maintain our reputations. Apparently chimpanzees can make judgments on people’s reputations depending on if they are willing to give a grape to a fellow (1).

Chimpanzees, though, are not close companions for most of us, so we won’t normally be worried about what the chimp down the road thinks of us. Dogs, on the other hand, abound and are treated as least as well as many of our children are treated. So when you venture out of your front door and all those attentive ears pick up the sound of your key in the lock and those noses start misting up the windows as pairs of eyes follow you down the driveway and along the sidewalk, noting that you ignore that hydrant which is the neighborhood message board, do they think nice or nasty?

This is clearly too good a question for any dyed-in-the-wool psychologist to leave on their lab bench.  Nitzschner et al of Leipzig’s Max Planck have risen to the challenge with interrogating 32 mature dogs after their lab experiments (1). The experimenters were matched women in terms of clothing, hairstyle and glasses so the dogs wouldn't be distracted by different physical attributes. Perfume wasn’t mentioned, so sniff tests were discounted.

The experimenters sat on the floor and each dog was shoved into the lab. In one case  (nice) the experimenter made a fuss of the dog. With the other case, the nasty, the experimenter ignored the dog. Of course the dogs liked being interacted with and spent a lot of time communicating with the experimenter.

The second experiment was the key one. The dog under study watched the experimenter with another dog, either fussing and cuddling it or ignoring it. Afterward they were allowed to interact with the experimenter directly. The result was that they spent as much time trying to discuss their affairs of the day with Ms. Nasty as with Ms. Nice; reputation was of no importance.

It seems that dogs decide about people by direct contact and don’t come to a relationship with a lot of prejudged baggage.


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