16 September 2015
Perhaps this is why our dogs are so happy to see us. When faced with a puzzle to solve for a treat, they give up and defer to humans for help, unlike their wild cousins, wolves. So are dogs just servile beasts whose dependence on humans has made them dumber and lazier than wolves? Or is it a sign of their high social intelligence?
The answers may not be straightforward. Monique Udell at Oregon State University took 10 wolves, 10 pet dogs and 10 shelter dogs, from a variety of breeds and mixes. Then she presented them with a puzzle box containing a food reward, which could be opened with a bit of persistence.
Eight out of 10 wolves were able to open the box but only one out of 20 dogs succeeded. Most declined to attempt the task and instead looked to humans for guidance. “Wolves spent almost all of their time engaged on the task trying to get the puzzle open, and dogs spent almost none. That was a pretty striking difference,” says Udell.
Even when there were no people around, dogs fared no better. They only made a concerted effort to get into the box when encouraged to do so. “That gets at the key aspect here,” says Udell. “They really seem to be waiting for some indicator from humans to engage.”
So does this mean dogs are less intelligent than wolves when it comes to independent problem-solving, or just have more advanced social cognition? Udell thinks the two species have merely adopted strategies appropriate to their own lifestyle. Dogs are more inclined to solicit human help first, whereas wolves try to go it alone. Wolves will use humans to help solve problems when needed, while dogs’ domestication and upbringing mean waiting for direction seems to be a default, Udell says.
Marc Bekoff at the University of Colorado in Boulder says we should be careful about generalising that wolves do this and dogs do that. “The incredible amount of behavioural variability among dogs makes it impossible to talk about ‘the dog’,” he says.
We really don’t know whether dogs that look to humans for help with problem-solving have advanced social skills, making them cleverer than wolves, or are merely dependent on humans, Bekoff says.
Journal reference: Biology Letters, DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2015.0489Magazine issue 3039 published 19 September 2015