Man’s best friend may be relying a tad too much on the intelligence of their owners, according to a new study published in Biology Letters. Domestic dogs might have lost some of their problem-solving skills due to their extensive history with humans.
For the study, animal behaviorist Monique Udell gave 10 pet dogs, 10 shelter dogs, and 10 wolves raised by humans a problem-solving task. The shelter dogs were included to act as an “intermediate” canine – they are domesticated yet not as socially stimulated as the pets. Each animal was allowed to sniff a sausage before it was capped in a clear plastic container. To detach the cover, all the dog or wolf had to do was hold the box down with one of their paws while tugging a rope attached to the lid. They were given two minutes to complete the task.
Sounds easy enough, right? Actually, no. None of the pet dogs opened the lid and only one shelter dog came out victorious. In comparison, eight of the wolves quickly accomplished the feat.
Udell performed the same test again, but this time with the animals’ owners present. The exact same results occurred. Undeterred, Udell performed yet another test: She asked an experimenter (which was the owner in the case of the pets) to encourage the pet and shelter dogs to get the food. This time, four shelter dogs snagged themselves a tasty treat, while only one pet dog did so.
The key difference was persistence: The wolves persisted in the task for much longer, whereas the dogs soon looked to their owners for help. Although, to be honest, that’s not a bad tactic if it’s worked in the past.
Udell offered Science Magazine another possibility: “We tell them not to do things, so they learn to inhibit their actions and to wait for directions from us.” Dogs that don’t pick up on this social cue may end up in shelters – perhaps the reason they outperformed pet dogs.
So does this mean wolves are smarter than dogs? Not necessarily. “It’s adaptive for wolves to be independent problem solvers, and for dogs to read human [cues],” said Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University, who was not involved in the study.
“It’s not that dogs can’t do it,” Udell added. “But they don’t even try unless they’re socially motivated.” She also told the New York Times that in a pilot study, an 8-week-old puppy was able to open the lid, further indication that perhaps dogs learn to look to us for help before making a concerted effort.
Of course, there are many limitations to this study. For one, the sample size was small. Two, the breed and energy of the dog likely plays a role, as previous studies have shown that hyper and calm dogs react differently to problem-solving tasks. There is also the issue of the wolves having had more opportunity to solve problems on their own.
Still, it’s an intriguing first step and a good excuse to make your dog try a bit harder for a treat.