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Why Do Wolves Do This So Much Easier Than Your Dog?

dog cognition

Story at-a-glance -

  • When given an unsolvable task, dogs tend to look back to humans for help
  • This is often cited as an area of socio-cognitive advancement in dogs, as they appear to understand when they need help and actively solicit it from humans around them
  • While wolves are persistent and independent, working hard to solve a problem on their own with little notice or expectation of help from humans, dogs prefer to get help from their owner
  • This reliance on humans is in part our own doing, since we so often tell our dogs what to do and, more often, what not to do

By Dr. Becker

Although dogs share more than 99 percent of their DNA with wolves, there are key differences between these species, especially when it comes to their interactions with humans.

It’s thought that modern dogs have one common ancestor — the Eurasian grey wolf. About 30,000 to 40,000 years ago (the exact timeframe is a subject of debate), a subspecies of wolf likely began interacting with humans, perhaps foraging for food around human campsites.1

This bond strengthened and ultimately led to the domestic dogs we know and love today. The animals’ ability to recognize and respond to human cues was undoubtedly crucial in the development of this relationship, so it’s not entirely surprising that dogs are quite in-tune with human communicative signals.2

Research has also demonstrated that when given an unsolvable task, dogs will look back to humans for help. This is often cited as an area of socio-cognitive advancement in dogs, as they appear to understand when they need help and actively solicit it from humans around them.

This skill is not present in wolves, which, when presented with an unsolvable task, will typically continue trying to solve it. Monique Udell, Ph.D., an animal behaviorist at Oregon State University, Corvallis and author of a recent study on the topic, told Science:3

“People tend to think that dogs are clever because they recognize when a problem is unsolvable, whereas wolves don’t seem to understand this.”

It could be, however, that the different strategies used by dogs and wolves are not indicators of intelligence, per se, but rather developed from how domestic dogs are raised.

Dogs Are Less Likely Than Wolves to Solve Problems on Their Own

A recent study involved 10 pet dogs, 10 shelter dogs and 10 wolves given three opportunities to open a puzzle box (a covered plastic container containing a bit of sausage, with a rope that would open the box when pulled).4

The animals were given access to the puzzle boxes under different scenarios. In one test, the animals were left alone with the box for 2 minutes. Eight of the wolves opened the box during this test, compared to one shelter dog and no pet dogs.

In the next test, the animals were given access to the puzzle with an experimenter standing nearby. The results were nearly identical: eight wolves succeeded in opening the box as did one pet dog, but no shelter dogs solved the puzzle.

Of note, the dogs spent much more time gazing at the human than the wolves did. The dogs that had previously failed to open the puzzle box were then given another chance, during which a human used gestures and spoke positively to encourage the dogs to keep trying.

This time, four of the shelter dogs and one pet dog solved the puzzle, and all the dogs spent much more time trying to solve the puzzle than they had previously.

While the wolves are persistent and independent, working hard to solve the problem on their own with little notice or expectation of help from humans, dogs “prefer a social cognitive solution,” Udell said, meaning they prefer to get help from their owner.

This is in part our “fault,” since we so often tell our dogs what to do and, more often, what not to do. Udell told Science:5

“It’s not that dogs can’t do it … But they don’t even try unless they’re socially motivated … We tell them not to do things, so they learn to inhibit their actions and to wait for directions from us …

The pet dogs seem to err on the side of caution, even though solving the problem independently would be fine, and their owner is telling them that it’s okay.”

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Dogs Are Uniquely Adept at Communicating With Humans

When your dog gazes into your eyes, it triggers the release of oxytocin, aka the love hormone, in both you and your dog.6 Specifically, oxytocin reduces stress responses and anxiety while increasing feelings of trust, relaxation and bonding.

Interestingly, the same rise in oxytocin was not seen among wolves raised by humans, even though gazes were shared among the animals and familiar owners.

As for why, researchers suggested dogs may have honed the ability during domestication, noting "it is possible that dogs cleverly and unknowingly 'hijacked' the natural system meant for bonding a parent with his or her child."7

Perhaps this is why so many people love their dogs as though they are human children. Hormonal responses aside, however, dogs are also masters at reading human communication cues, likely because they learned that paying close attention earned them more food, shelter or affection.

Other suggestions for why and how dogs became so in tune with human forms of communication include:8

  • Dogs may have had more opportunity to learn to be responsive to human cues than other species
  • Dogs may have developed a theory of mind for social exchanges during domestication
  • Sensitivity to the behaviors of humans likely proved advantageous for dogs, as responding to human actions may have corresponded with the availability of food

Citizen Scientists Produce Quality Data About Dog Psychology and Cognition

Research into dog psychology is ongoing, but many facets of dog behavior and cognition are difficult to study in laboratory settings. Researchers conducted a study to find out if dog owners acting as citizen scientists could help in the scientific process, and it turns out they produced quality data.

The study involved a website called Dognition.com, which asks participants to play games (created by scientists, trainers and behaviorists) with their dog in order to complete a Dognition Assessment. Five-hundred people participated, half for free and half paid for access to the site.

Each participant received a temperament questionnaire and instructions on how to conduct 10 cognitive tests with his or her dog. The responses were recorded online and the data replicated that produced by conventional lab-based research. The researchers concluded that citizen scientists could be an important new tool in dog cognition research:9

This analysis suggests that in the future, citizen scientists will generate useful datasets that test hypotheses and answer questions as a complement to conventional laboratory techniques used to study dog psychology.”

How Does Your Dog’s Mind Work?

If you’re interested in finding out how your dog stacks up intellectually and otherwise, you can conduct an online assessment of your own dog using the Dognition site. After you play the games with your dog and report his results, he’ll be assigned a profile based on a combination of characteristics that shape the way he approaches daily life.

For instance, dogs that are independent and spontaneous are “stargazers,” while dogs that are problem solvers with a strong memory are “Einsteins.” There are nine different profiles, and learning where your dog fits may help you understand why he acts the way he does and where he excels. Some dogs, for instance, are experts at making eye contact and bonding while others rely on working memory.

So far, more than 17,000 dog owners have used the site. Data compiled via Dognition has shown that some dogs have better memories than others, and dogs also differ in how reliant they are on cues from their owners. Brian Hare, Ph.D., study author and evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University, even gained some insights into his own dog, Tasmania. He told NBC News:10

When we play the eye contact game he is really at the extreme of making eye contact. That was something I really didn't know … We played some memory games. He doesn't really rely on working memory so much. So when I say 'stay' and he walks off, I have a different feeling about it now. I'm not like, 'You're so disobedient.' I'm, like, 'Awww, he wandered off again.’”