Are Dogs Smarter than Wolves?
Vilmos Csányi and his colleagues at Loránd Eötvös University’s department of ethology, study animal behavior. Specifically they study the behavior of domestic dogs.
Over the last ten years Csányi’s group has collected data that suggest dogs have far greater mental capabilities than scientists have previously given them credit for. “Our experiments indicate a high level of social understanding in dogs,” he says.
In their relationship with humans, dogs have developed remarkable interspecies-communications skills, said Csányi. “They easily accept a membership in the family, they can predict social events, they provide and request information, obey rules of conduct, and are able to cooperate and imitate human actions,” he says. His research even suggests that dogs can speculate on what we are thinking.
Until recently, dogs were believed to be intellectually inferior to wolves. For example, a 1985 study conducted at the University of Michigan at Flint demonstrated that wolves were typically able unlock a complicated gate mechanism after watching a human do it a just a single time, yet domestic dogs were unable to complete the task even after watching it being opened several times. These results led to the conclusion that dogs’ were less intelligent than wolves.
Csányi suspected that, rather than being less intelligent than wolves, domestic dogs were simply more inhibited and might seek permission from their masters before doing something as daring as opening a gate. Eight years ago, he and his colleagues conducted a problem-solving experiment of their own. In their study 28 dogs of various ages, breeds, and levels of training had to figure out how to pull on handles of plastic dishes to obtain meat on the other side of a wire fence. The studies were conducted in the presence of the dogs’ owners. In all cases, the dogs with the strongest relationship with their owner scored worst, as they were continually looking to them for permission or assistance in the task. The best results were from outdoor dogs, who obtained the food, on average, in one-third the time as the indoor dogs.
Then trials were conducted where the owners were allowed to give their dogs permission to do the task, the gap between indoor and outdoor dogs disappeared.
The results of these trials led to further studies about how well dogs can solve problems when taking cues from people. Chimpanzees, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, have the ability to follow a human’s attentional gaze, but do poorly in classic experiments that require them to infer clues by watching a person. In these tests, researchers hide food in one of several containers out of sight of the animal then allow the chimp to choose one container as the experimenter indicates the correct choice by gazing, nodding, pointing, or tapping. Chimps score poorly on these tests even with extensive coaching.
When they were subjected to these test, domestic dogs, exhibited great skills at following human directional and informational cues. Even stray dogs nearly always solved the problem immediately. The dogs consistently outperformed wolves.
The results of these studies are controversial.
Michael J. Owren, assistant professor of psychology at Cornell University, says Mr. Csányi’s team may be underestimating the flexibility of associative learning, “Dogs are supremely sensitive to cues being produced by humans and are able to interact with humans very effectively,” Mr. Owren says. “The question then becomes to what extent are they showing sophisticated cognitive processing and to what extent is their behavior being molded by this extreme attentiveness to people?”
Well — that would be the hundred dollar question. Unfortunately the study of animal behavioral sciences in the United States seems to still be held firmly under the sway of B.F. Skinner who didn’t even believe that human beings were capable of sophisticated cognitive processing. Until researchers in the U.S. break away from the limitations of strict Skinnerian operant conditioning, they don’t stand a snowflake’s chance in Hell of answering these kinds of important questions.
Dr. Raymond Coppinger, from Hampshire College noted, “The Hungarians are using pet-class dogs who have been socialized in a very unique way, but there is no accounting for that. To be talking about dogs in general when you are only referring to this small population of dogs from the Western world that have been bred for all sorts of specific tasks is going to lead us astray about what dogs can do or how they evolved.”
Mr. Coppinger stated that he is concerned that Csyani’s team failed to consider the “Clever Hans effect.” Scientists ultimately concluded that the horse was picking up inadvertent cues from the person who posed the question; Hans was clever enough to figure out that he would get a treat if he stopped tapping when the human in front of him subtly reacted to the arrival of the “correct answer”; the horse didn’t actually know arithmetic.
With all due respect to Dr.Coppinger, the vast majority of dogs in the world today are “pet-class dogs” who are socialized to living with humans. Our environment is their environment. Conducting studies on dogs raised in sterile laboratory environments or on the small remaining populations of feral dogs makes about as much sense as basing studies on human psychology on populations living in prisons or on abandoned islands.