When you think about it, it seems like common sense. We do everything for our dogs. We provide their dog food, water and shelter. We set a schedule and routine for them. We even make sure there is someone to care for them at all times if we need to go away for any reason. Wild dogs do not have these luxuries.
Even though we know we’ve enabled our dogs to be lazy, there is a part of many of us that think our dogs may still have their wild instincts buried deep down somewhere. However, new research is proving that this may not be the case. A new study suggests that domesticated pets cannot solve problems as well as their wild relatives. It seems that living with humans has made most domesticated dogs unable to think for themselves.
In tests performed at Oregon State University, experts gave puzzle boxes full of food to a group of wolves and a group of dogs. Dr. Monique Udell, an animal researcher at the institution, gave 10 wolves, 10 shelter dogs and 10 pet dogs a clear box that contained a piece of sausage. In order to get to the sausage the animals had to pull off the lid using a length of rope.
They were given the boxes both when a familiar human was present and when the human was absent. Each time they had two minutes to get the box open. Most of the wolves were able to break the box open by themselves to reach the food, but the dogs usually looked to humans for help. Dr. Urdell says that it appears that humans have conditioned dogs to not think for themselves over time.
8 out of the 10 wolves managed to open the box and eat the snack within the two minutes. Only one of the 20 dogs was able to solve the problem. Dr. Urdell’s research is published in the Royal Science journal Biology Letters. She says that the wolves succeeded because they were noticeably more persistent than the dogs.
When domesticated dogs run into a problem, it is human nature to try and help them. It seems like a good thing to us, but over time domesticated dogs have learned to expect this help from humans, so they don’t bother trying to think of ways to help themselves. Urdell says that wolves have more opportunities to problem-solve independently in their environment, and they have a greater history of success when trying to get trapped food.
Quite the opposite, the dogs behavior may be the product of their conditioned dependence on us or their conditioned self-consciousness for independent problem solving when confronted with a new task. When encouraged by a human, the dogs did have more contact with the puzzle boxes but still only a moderate increase in their success rate.
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Dr. Urdell says:
“Social sensitivity appears to play an important role in pet and shelter dogs’ willingness to engage in problem-solving behavior, which could suggest generalized dependence on, or deference to, human action…While an increased proclivity for looking at humans may represent a cognitive shift in dogs compared with wolves, it does not necessarily suggest cognitive advancement.”
There are also researchers that feel that a dependence on humans actually shows that dogs are more intelligent than wolves. Marc Bekoff, an animal psychologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder, says that dogs looking to humans for help may actually show that they are cleverer than wolves, and it suggests that they have more advanced social skills. However, he also says that it is impossible to generalize when comparing the behavior of dogs and wolves due to all canines’ incredible amount of behavioral variability.