Tuesday, October 31, 2017 by Isabelle Z.
Wolves have been shown in past studies to be better at learning from each other than dogs, and they also observe each other more closely. Now, we can add cause-and-effect skills to the list of areas in which wolves reign superior after a new study that compared the reasoning skills of human-socialized wolves to those of dogs revealed that man’s best friend seems to have lost his ability to make cause-and-effect connections.
After studying 14 dogs and a dozen human-socialized wolves at the Vetmeduni Vienna Wolf Science Center, researchers found that the animals have surprisingly different approaches when it comes to looking for food after receiving hints about where it might be found. Their findings were published in Scientific Reports. The animals studied had been living under identical conditions and had the same training regime and history.
The task involved choosing between two different objects, one of which had food hidden inside of it and one of which was empty. The researcher first used a communication cue, making direct eye contact with the wolf or dog and then pointing to the food container that had the food inside. They also used a behavioral cue wherein they would point to the right container or sniff it without making any eye contact. A third cue was considered causal; in the absence of the human, the correct container would make a noise when it was shaken. The animals were left to figure out where the food was hidden based on these clues.
The wolves and dogs both managed to follow communicative cues to locate the hidden food, and neither animal chose the right object in the absence of direct eye contact with the behavioral cues. When it came to the causal cues, however, the difference was clear: the wolves found the food easily, while the dogs struggled, regardless of whether they were pack dogs or pets. The researchers said that only the wolves could make causal inferences, which means they can grasp cause and effect.
This has led them to believe that domestication might have actually changed the cognitive abilities of dogs, and not for the better. Their study compared dogs who live in packs to pets who live with human families, and they found that dogs’ results were actually independent of their living conditions. Although they say it’s possible that wolves are simply more persistent in exploring objects than dogs because wolves fend for themselves in nature, the findings raise some interesting questions.
For example, does domestication “dumb down” animals? Some people would argue that it has had such an effect on humans. Once skilled survivalists, most modern humans would struggle if we suddenly had to find shelter and food out in the wild and could well end up becoming food for wolves ourselves.
With studies showing that many millennials struggle with basic tasks like changing a light bulb and boiling an egg, it’s clear that our pampered lifestyles are making us increasingly dumber. One could even take this argument a step further and hypothesize that this is exactly how the government wants people – devoid of useful skills and completely dependent on them for their survival.
The “dumbing down” of society is more than mere conjecture on the part of older generations who think they know better; a study from the University of Amsterdam found that human intelligence has dropped in recent years, with Westerners losing 14 IQ points on average since Victorian times. Therefore, it appears that dogs are not alone in their waning intelligence.
Some animals, on the other hand, are surprisingly intelligent. Crows understand the cause-and-effect relationship quite well and will drop stones into a tube of water in order to float a desired treat up to the surface so they can reach it. Parrots can comprehend that pulling a string in a special test will bring them a treat. Will future studies find a similar decline in the intelligence of other species because of domestication?