Are Dogs Smarter than Wolves?

March 14, 2008 at 5:12 am 10 comments

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.

Entry filed under: animals, behavior science, dog, dog obedience, dog training, dogs. Tags: , , .

Love and Manners A Lovely Waste of Time

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Marjorie  |  March 14, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    These kinds of discussions break my heart, on a certain level.

    I trained dogs for a very, very long time. I never had difficulty teaching dogs anything I wanted them to learn. This proved to me that dogs are infinitely more intelligent than they’re given credit for. (I’m less-concerned with qualifying/quantifying that intelligence, in relation to other animals/humans.)

    I wish more people would forget all the nonsense they’ve been told by so-called “experts,” assume their dogs are capable of learning everything, and let the individual dog demonstrate how much it’s capable of. Instead of settling for the lowest common denominator, why not reach for the stars?

    That’s pretty much how I approach training all the dogs I’ve worked with over the years. (I assume the dog is capable of learning what I’m trying to teach, and it’s up to me to find a way to get the dog to understand what I want. I consider the dog as the “given” and I’m the wild card that is either clever and competent enough to bridge the communication gap, or not.) And I suspect that’s why I’ve been so successful. If anything, I’m frustrated that humans can’t better understand how dogs think, so I could get even more out of them. In describing my ongoing, daily commitment to teach new things to dogs in my care, I often say, “I’m just trying to keep [their brains] wrinkled.” There’s no happier dog than one which is regularly mentally stimulated, adequately exercised, and receives positive reinforcement for behaving in ways desired by the owner.

    Sadly, lack of mental stimulation leads to problem behaviours in many dogs. Too often, they’re punished for acting out, but are still relegated to the life of a dullard. I have met many dogs whose owners expect them to pretty much sleep their lives away. And that breaks my heart.

  • 2. Audie's Gramma  |  March 14, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    While I can come up with some possible methodological criticisms of Csanyi’s work, I really wish that the US media would stop running to Ray Coppinger for the obligatory Coppinger drivel every time there’s a news story with “dog” in the subject line.

    “Clever Hans Effect” for problem-solving? Eh? This ain’t foot-tapping; the fact that the outdoor dogs initially did better is a finding that has to be addressed.

    Coppinger’s comments make no sense. If I could show that I could take a nursery full of Hungarian orphans, adopt each of them into a loving home full of stimulation, books, music, and learning, and those orphans would grow up to be high-accomplishing young adults with 800’s on their SATs — how does that not suggest that humans as a species are capable of that level of achievement?

    Coppinger is so irrationally wedded to his evidence-free contention that dogs are naturally garbage-pariahs, rather than partners in the hunt, he can’t resist jamming that scratched and foggy lens over every way we look at the species.

    Now, as for opening gates, and dogs being so agreeable that they wait for permission to do something so presumptuous — err, no, sorry.

    I have owned one dog who was working on the Mystery of the Doorknob by the age of four months. For her entire long and honored life, we had a rule: Mel was never to be confronted by a closed door that was not also locked in such a way that she could not possibly open it. This was vitally important, we were consistent, and the Doorknob Paradox remained unsolved in our house. (The Mystery of the Screw-Top Jar and the Puzzle of the Snap-Top Bucket quickly yielded to her genius, however, and I had the tongue-parabolas in the bottom of the peanut-butter to prove it. And we still have the child-and-German-shepherd-proof latches on our cupboards.)

    However, getting back to “inhibition.” If a dog is waiting for permission to flip the gate latch, why is she digging through drywall, chewing the woodwork, turning around and trashing the sofa trying to get out? Or launching through a window, perhaps? I had a foster who used to scale my 6′ fence when I left and wait for me on the front porch; it would have been easier for Rudy to flip the latch and walk out, but he never did. He sure wasn’t inhibited about escaping, though. And Rudy was a very bright dog.

    I think that everyone is hampered in his or her ability to understand the cognition of a dog by two facts: 1) we are not dogs and; (2) we seem to be, as a species, so addicted to navel staring and the proposition that we are “special” and “different” from all other beings that we can only see other animals “in comparison” to ourselves — instead of studying how another species thinks and perceives the world, we study how the way they think is “similar to” or “different from” ourselves. Ho hum.

  • 3. Barry John Embleton  |  March 14, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    iV been in dos for many years now having judged all around the world Sweden Finland America and Australia.

  • 4. Mike  |  May 20, 2008 at 9:33 am

    The vast majority of dogs in the world today are absolutely NOT ‘pet class’ dogs (in fact these are a small minority), and this statement alone illuminates the problem with the ‘smart dog’ lobby. China, Russia, India, S-E Asia, Africa and South America don’t have too many ‘pet-class’ dogs, and the ‘World Series’ is not an international sporting competition.

    The reason why the press routinely go to Coppinger for his opinion is precisely because he seems to be the only scientist in the field that has bothered to properly travel the world and see how things work outside the European/North American suburban paradigm. That and the fact that his thesis on dog evolution remains the most compelling in the field.

    All this cognitive projection (which lacks real scientific foundation) might delight the humans involved, but ultimately places ever greater responsibilities on dogs – in a world where they are already taking increasing amounts of strain. How this is meant to benefit this species in any way is beyond me.

  • 5. retrieverman  |  January 13, 2009 at 12:50 am

    Excellent analysis. I linked to this post so that I could show some of the holes in the Coppinger thesis about how domestication made the dog less intelligent.

  • 6. Tony Mcgrane  |  February 7, 2009 at 11:50 am

    I am curious about Ray Coppingers theories.I am sorry but I do not buy the line that a Dog is a svanger only.What is his theory about domestication making the Dog less intelligent? Tony

  • 7. brittany  |  February 16, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    You guys need to get facts about this stuff. I’m doing a science fair project on this thing and you guys didn’t help me at all. Next time can you guys please get better facts?

  • 8. SmartDogs  |  February 16, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    Dear Brittany,
    If you’re working on a science fair project you should probably look farther than the blogosphere for information.

  • 9. Jack Wimmer  |  March 31, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Wolves are so much smarter than dogs and it breaks my heart beyond what one can imagine to read (or, worse, hear) anyone say otherwise. Wolves are like us in so many different ways, and I don’t care how much better stupid dogs are with performing tricks, tests, and stupid races or whatever. Wolves have individual personalities, while dogs are just animals in a circus. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to go so far…as a matter of fact I have two dogs at home, who I really love. But, still, a wolf’s intellect is certainly not lower than a dog’s…it’s just a different kind of intelligence.

  • 10. Freya  |  July 31, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    Wolves and dogs are both very intelligent animals, but their intelligence differs. Wolves will notice everything in their surroundings, while dogs do not always. Wolves are hardwired to survive, while that instinct has been worn away in domesticated dogs because they rely on us.
    I have two very intelligent dogs (one almost scarily intelligent) but I don’t think either of them would last long in the wild.

    @ Jack Wimmer,
    As for wolves having different personalities and dogs just being all the same, that’s complete and total bullshit. I work at a vet clinic and constantly look after multiple dogs that are boarding with us and each of them have their own unique personality. Some are protective of me and will bark at anyone they see while I walk them. Others want to greet the person. It’s not just a socialization thing in this case, because if you take Baxter, who barks at every person on the walk and Molly, who wants to make friends, they both are very friendly dogs when they’re first meeting people inside the clinic.
    Both dogs and wolves have personalities. I’m sorry that you can’t see that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


Copyright notice

All original content on this Web site is copyright © on the date of publication by this author. All rights reserved except, of course, that others may quote from original content under the 'Fair Use' provisions of US copyright law.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 284 other subscribers

RSS New Stuff in our Library

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

Top Clicks

  • None
Top Dog Blog
Featured in Alltop


Add to Technorati Favorites
Dog Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory
blogarama - the blog directory
Blog Directory
Blog Directory & Search engine
March 2008

%d bloggers like this: