Minding Their Manners

I recently read a study that compared wolves’ and dogs’ ability to solve a “puzzle” — opening a plastic box with a piece of sausage inside. The wolves did much better than the dogs, and, from the articles I read about the study, it seems that many researchers are interpreting that to mean that the dogs are dumber than the wolves, at least when it comes to problem-solving. The comments were rather unkind to dogs, and, I think, wrong.

One comment, in the New York Times, came closest to “getting it.” This person suggested that perhaps the dogs had been taught not to take human food or open food containers. Paired with the fact that most dogs’ food is handed to them by humans, while most wolves must find their own food, I’d say the dogs were set up to fail.

The study was published in a British journal by an Oregon State University researcher, Monique Udell. In her own analysis, she paid more attention to the fact that the dogs spent more time looking at the familiar human (who was present for some trials of the test and who provided encouragement in some trials) than at the box. Various commenters’ interpretations of the dogs’ looks ranged from “seeking assistance” to “slavish.”

Half the dogs tested were pets; the other half were shelter dogs, but no information was provided about how many of those had spent part or most of their lives in homes before landing at the shelter. The wolves had been socialized to humans, but even a tame wolf is still a wolf, not a domestic pet.

It makes sense that the dogs would have been taught not to take food or been punished for taking food. It also makes sense that, if a familiar human were present, they would seek help, information, or even permission before helping themselves. When I give my dogs a particularly spectacular treat (a 2-inch piece of sausage would certainly qualify), they often look at me, look at it, look at me — going back and forth a few times, seemingly questioning whether this bounty is truly meant for them. They are polite. They know the rules. They are also quite happy to indulge in exceptions to those rules, once they’re sure they won’t get reprimanded for doing so.

I would have been much more surprised if the dogs didn’t look to the human for permission or help. After all, thousands of years of living together has resulted in close partnerships and, at least on the dogs’ part, exquisite ability to read human’s communication. We humans are less successful at reading the dogs, sadly. Their survival depends on reading humans’ cues and behaving accordingly. Wolves have no such hangups (nor should they).

Some comments on the study went so far as to suggest that training dogs has made them dumber and less able to solve problems, that their social connection to humans puts them at a cognitive disadvantage. I disagree. While some training approaches do discourage dogs from thinking, modern approaches to training that use motivation and reward actually encourage problem-solving. Far from dumbing dogs down, their enhanced social sensitivity to humans enables them to thrive in our world and, in many cases, enjoy comfortable lives and strong connections with their adopted families.

And if those strong connections compel dogs to ask before eating your food, what’s wrong with that? Many people wish their roommates were as considerate.

For more about the study, see these articles:

OSU study: Have we made dogs lazier or dumber than their ancestor wolves?, the Register-Guard, Oct. 2, 2015

Why Is That Dog Looking at Me?, The New York Times, Sept. 15, 2015

The study, “When dogs look back: Inhibition of independent problem-solving behavior in domestic dogs,” by Monique Udell, was published in the British journal Biology Letters on Sept. 16, 2015.

See also my related post on the PPG Barks blog.

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One thought on “Minding Their Manners

  1. For any such study to be taken seriously, we need to know the details of the study. The number of “participants”; their background history; breed etc etc. If an alien race studied a few high school drop outs, they would come to very different conclusions than if they studied a few University Grads! Dogs specifically have already been studied with the conclusion that some breeds are distinctly more adept at problem solving than others. We know that dogs can learn, so a nurtured dog could produce very different results than one which has survived on its own for some time. In a nutshell, I would not take those studies too seriously.

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