They may be man’s best friend, but dogs have little to thank humans for it seems. Research suggests the domesticated pets can’t solve problems as well as their wild cousins because living with us has made them ‘incapable of thinking for themselves.’ In tests, experts presented a ‘puzzle box’ containing food to a group of dogs, and a group of wolves and while the wolves were capable of breaking inside, the dogs looked to humans for help.
Instead they showed signs of look to the humans for some guidance on what they should do. Dr Monique Udell, an animal behaviour researcher at Oregon State University who conducted the study, said humans appear to have conditioned the animals to not think for themselves. The results may explain why dogs so often seem to get themselves into a tangled mess with their lead or get their heads stuck in railings or inside boxes.
Dr Udell said: ‘Wolves may have more opportunities for independent problem-solving within their environment, and a greater history of success obtaining trapped food independently owing to their relative strength.
‘Consequently, dogs’ behaviour may be the product of conditioned dependence on humans, or conditioned inhibition of independent problem-solving behaviour when confronted with a novel task.’
Dr Udell gave 10 wolves, 10 pet dogs and 10 shelter dogs a clear box containing a piece of sausage. To get inside, the dogs needed to pull off the lid using a length of rope. They were presented with the puzzle both when a familiar human was present and when the human was not absent.
They were additionally given two minutes each to get inside the box. Eight of the 10 wolves managed to solve the puzzle and eat the snack while just one of the 20 dogs managed the problem. Dr Udell, whose work is published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, said the wolves tended to be more persistent than the dogs.
When encouraged by a human, the dogs had more contact with the puzzle but only a moderate increase in success. Dr Udell said it appears dogs have adopted a strategy that matches their lifestyle – where humans will often do things for them.
‘Social sensitivity appears to play an important role in pet and shelter dogs’ willingness to engage in problem-solving behaviour, which could suggest generalized dependence on, or deference to, human action,’ she said.
‘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.