Humans May Have Turned Dogs Into Bad Problem-Solvers

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Bad news for man's best friend: they're not as smart as they used to be. According to findings published in the most recent issue of Biology Letters, domesticated dogs may have become bad problem-solvers as a consequence of their happy cohabitation with people. In our quest to create perfectly loyal, perfectly tame companions, we may unwittingly have bred the smarts right out of them.

Previous studies have indicated that domesticated dogs and the wolves they evolved from exhibit radically different approaches to tough obstacles. When presented with an impenetrable box of food, both dogs and wolves tested naturally made an initial attempt to get at its tantalizing contents. It wasn't until a few minutes had passed that the two groups' behavior diverged. While the wolves persisted in scrabbling away at the box, unable or unwilling to admit the futility of their attacks, the dogs quickly sat back and looked to the nearest human. Such behavior could be interpreted as a marker of higher intelligence, in that the dogs were both able to recognize when a task was insurmountable and clever enough to seek assistance from a more capable body. The researchers appraised this "looking behavior" as an indicator of domesticated dogs' ability to communicate effectively with humans. However, the very same act might also indicate a readiness to give up too quickly when the going gets tough.

Researcher Monique Udell, assistant professor of animal and rangeland sciences at Oregon State University, wanted to determine whether or not this human-dependent behavior persisted even when the dogs should have been able to solve their problems on their own. She rigged up a plastic container containing some tempting sausage bits, which should have been accessible with enough pawing, biting, and determination. In addition to two groups of pet dogs and human-friendly (relatively speaking) wolves, Udell also tested a group of shelter dogs: Canis lupus familiaris like the pet dogs, but wary of human contact like the wolves.

Each group had three chances to get into the box: first alone in the room with nothing but their animal wits, then in the presence of a familiar human, and finally with verbal encouragement from their human. In the absence of humans, not a single pet dog managed to get into the box, though one shelter dog and nearly all the wolves did. Once their owners made an appearance, the pets performed nearly as poorly— in contrast to the eight of ten wolves who enjoyed their sausage treat, just one pet dog did. All the dogs, pet and shelter alike, gave up much more quickly than the wolves, looking to their respective humans instead of continuing to struggle. When those same humans finally provided verbal, if not physical, assistance, four of nine shelter dogs and one of eight pet dogs finally succeeded. Even those who didn't at least spent more time trying than they had in other trials.

Udell calls the domesticated dogs' readiness to seek help rather than attack the problem "a conditioned inhibition of problem-solving behavior." In other words, humans have spoiled dogs. Rather than fending for themselves, as wolves do, dogs have become secure in the belief that there will always be a human to help.

[h/t Smithsonian Magazine]