An experiment has found that domestic dogs have lost some of their problem solving abilities, and wolves currently do a much better job than them. In her paper published in the journal Biology Letters, they describe this result, and also offer a possible explanation.

Credit: Noël Zia Lee, Wikimedia Commons

Monique Udell, a researcher with Oregon State University enlisted the help of ten domesticated dogs, ten dogs that live in shelters, and ten wolves raised by humans. Each of the animals was presented with a tasty sausage which they could smell, but not eat. The sausage was then placed inside of a plastic container with a snap-on lid connected to a short length of rope. In order to open the container and eat the sausage, they had to pull on the rope while holding down the container, a task considered fairly simple for dogs and wolves. The experiment was conducted in two ways, one in which the animals were alone, and the other one in which they were with their owners.

Surprisingly, none of the pet dogs was able to complete the task, and only one of the shelter dogs did so. However, 8 out of 10 wolves succeeded. The presence of a human made no difference. When the owner offered encouragements, four of the shelter dogs were able to access the sausage, but still only one pet managed to do it.

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Udell also made an interesting note: pet dogs have lived alongside humans for a long time, and therefore, when feeling perplexed with a new situation, they tend to look at their owner for help. The dogs were asking for help, while the wolves persisted and tried to solve the problem.

This experiment, while difficult to thoroughly interpret, seems to show that something about being pets made dogs lose a big part of their motivation and this affects their problem-solving ability.

Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that shelter dogs did somewhat better than house dogs – which indicates that specifically being a pet makes dog “softer” and less motivated to solve problems. However, things are not as simple as saying that wolves are “smarter” or “more creative” than dogs.

Journal Reference: When dogs look back: inhibition of independent problem-solving behaviour in domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) compared with wolves (Canis lupus), Biology Letters, Published 16 September 2015.DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2015.0489