A study at the Wolf Science Center of the Vetmeduni Vienna has shown that wolves have a better understanding of cause-and-effect than their domesticated descendants – the dogs, and they follow human-given communicative cues just as good as dogs. According to researchers, the process of domestication is possibly the reason for this loss of the dogs’ cognitive abilities.
In the study, the team investigated the reasoning abilities of 14 dogs and 12 human-socialized wolves, by putting two containers – of which one contained hidden food and the other was empty. Then the animals were shown three set of cues to determine which of two containers had the food.
First, they tested whether the animals can make use of communicative cues, such as direct eye-contact and pointing gestures to choose the correct container.
Secondly, they tested if the animals can understand behavioral cues, where the experimenter only showed the location of the hidden food through their behaviour, without making any eye-contact with the animals.
And lastly, they tested whether the animals were able to make inferences about the location of the hidden food themselves, based on causal cues such as the noise produced by an object containing food when shaken.
Both the wolves and the dogs were able to find the container that had the food when given communicative cues. However, neither of the animals was able to choose the correct object with behavioral cues. But in the causal cues (in the absence of a human), the wolves outsmart the dogs in finding the food, which clearly proved the wolves have an understanding of cause and effect, while the domesticated dogs do not.
“The results of our study suggest that domestication has affected the causal understanding of our dogs,” said Michelle Lampe of the Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, in a news release. “It cannot be excluded however, that the differences can be explained by the fact that wolves are more persistent to explore objects than dogs. Dogs are conditioned to receive food from us, whereas wolves have to find food themselves in nature.”
“Our study is unique as it does not only compare dogs and wolves living under identical conditions, with a same history and training regime,” added Juliane Bräuer of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.
Researchers noted that the wolves’ use of cues in connection to eye-contact was an interesting finding for them. Zsófia Virányi from the Vetmeduni Vienna in Austria, who was also involved in the study explained that “the wolves’ ability to understand human communicative cues may have facilitated domestication. However, working with socialized wolves may have also impacted the results, as our animals are used to human contact. This could mask differences between the dogs and wolves, such as that dogs learn more easily about human communication throughout their lives.”
The study, entitled “The effects of domestication and ontogeny on cognition in dogs and wolves” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.