Yesterday I wrote about a scientific study I’d seen on TV where wolves and dogs were tested. The wolves had been socialized with people from babyhood, raised as if they were dogs. The dogs were a variety of domestic breeds. All animals were adults when given the series of tests. The results showed that dogs, unlike their close cousins, are adept at reading human body language; will follow pointing signals and try to mimic a human’s posture and/or activity.
This study was not an assessment of the raw INTELLIGENCE of either dogs or wolves. It was investigating their ability and willingness to read the social cues of a different animal — humans. It turns out that dogs somehow gained an inborn skill to “read” humans during domestication. And it is a skill that other domestic animals don’t share!
Alone of all the creatures on earth, dogs watch us for social cues and correctly interpret much of our body language; not only where we point but where we are LOOKING. In addition, this study shows that domestic dogs actively SEEK our help. Dogs look to us to tell them what to do.
The experiment was simple. A piece of meat was put in a wire cage so the canines couldn’t reach it directly. The meat was attached to one end of a strap, the other end of the strap stuck outside the wire cage. Both wolves and dogs easily figured out that to get the meat, they just had to pull on the strap. So far, wolves 1 v. dogs 1.
Next, the strap with meat attached was fastened so that pulling on the strap didn’t pull the meat within reach — and here’s where the big difference in dogs and wolves surfaced! Wolves would pull on the strap with teeth and dig at it with paws. When it stayed put, the wolf would pace around the cage and try to come at it from different angles. Wolves kept trying to figure out the problem on their own.
In contrast, the dogs also tried what had worked before — pulling/digging at the strap to get the meat. However, when the dogs didn’t get the result they expected and wanted, they only tried a few other solutions and for a very short period of time. Instead of trying to solve the problem on their own, the dogs would LOOK TO THE HUMAN in the room with them.
Was the dog asking for instructions or asking for the human to get the meat for him? The test wasn’t designed to tell us that, but it was OBVIOUS the dog wanted the human to do SOMETHING about that meat! The dog would look at the human and then at the meat and back again!
I’ve seen this a lot in my business. I keep the outside dog toys (frisbee, balls, etc.) in a box on top of a big wire crate in my mudroom. All the boarders and daycare dogs have seen me put the toys away in the box. It is out of reach of even the tallest dog and most dogs don’t want to jump up on top of a wire crate, even if their manners are that bad. Every toy-driven dog that visits will let me know in no uncertain terms that they want me to get the ball or frisbee by looking fixedly at the box, then when I look at them looking, they turn their gaze on me before looking back at the box.
The study clearly showed that wolves have better problem-solving abilities than dogs. However this is again, not really a test of sheer intelligence. The dogs might have the ABILITY to solve problems just as much as their wild ancestors, but have learned not to keep trying if a human is around to help them. The study didn’t mention if these tests were ever given in the ABSENCE of human onlookers or what the results were if they had been. I wonder if the dogs would have continued to try longer if nobody was there to help them?
Dogs are not inclined to spend effort on strategies that don’t pay off quickly. Instead, dogs are experts at following the path that gets them what they want as fast as possible. So, it would not be surprising to me to discover that the dogs would work when alone, but give up sooner if there was a human around to do the hard work for them! Dogs not only watch us, but look to us to make their lives easier!