Sure, your precious pup may sit, stay, shake. Maybe even moonwalk on command. But some scientists are starting to think that regardless of whether Pepper knows when it’s about to rain, Winston can bark the alphabet, or Sparky knows basic arithmetic, domesticated dogs are becoming less intelligent each year and it’s our fault. Another way of putting it, humans are responsible for DUMBesticating dogs.
We all know dogs have been our best friends for hundreds of years, but recent studies have dog behaviorists wondering if all the affection, food, and shelter are making them, well, dumb. At least, compared to their wolf kin.
Dr. Monique Udell, an animal behavior researcher at Oregon State University conducted a study, investigating this. She observed 10 wolves, 10 shelter dogs—who had not yet been adopted—and 10 family dogs. The tests began with one individual (in the case of the 10 family dogs, each was accompanied by their human) allowing the animal to smell a delectable sausage. Then, the person put the sausage into a plastic container.
Let’s talk about the container. It’s essentially a clear piece of Tupperware with a rope attached to the lid. Pull the rope, while holding the container still, and BOOM, it’s sausage time.
In the first test, each animal was left alone for two minutes. Eight of the wolves solved/opened the box. One of the shelter dogs succeeded. None of the family dogs got the treat.
In the second test, also two minutes long, the person stuck around while the animals tried to crack the case. Eight of the wolves got their nom.
None of the shelter dogs got the goods and one of the pet dogs succeeded.
In the third test, the nine pet dogs and nine shelter dogs who “couldn’t” originally open the container were given a second chance, this time with a human encouraging the dogs.
Accompanied by a cheerleader, four of the shelter dogs and one of the family dogs opened the container.
The dogs spent significantly more time looking at the person than the wolves did, demonstrating wolves were determined to open the container themselves. Meanwhile, the dogs made little effort at trying to get the treat when a person was present but were more motivated to try, spending less time looking at the human when encouraged.
“It’s not that dogs can’t do it… In a pilot study, an 8-week-old puppy was able to open the puzzle box,” Udell writes in her study. “But they don’t even try unless they’re socially motivated,” she added, claiming “they prefer a social cognitive solution.” Which basically means family dogs want their human’s help.
Dr. Clive Wynne, director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, and Dr. Udell’s frequent collaborator says, “Dogs around people learn that they should not help themselves, but most of the world’s dogs are not pets. You think they stop when they come to a box that’s not open? I will go so far as to say that we teach our dogs to be stupid.”
To me, this study doesn’t mean dogs aren’t as smart as wolves, just that the two groups are smart at different things. Wolves are more resourceful and they certainly are more clever at opening up a container filled with sausages, but perhaps it actually the dogs with those irresistible puppy dog eyes who are the real geniuses. What domesticated dogs lose in independence they gain in social awesomeness. I’d rather have a dog with instincts to snuggle up to me when I’m sad than one who can help me open the pickle jar.
And let’s not forget Jerry Seinfeld’s famous bit, “If you see two life forms, one of them’s making a poop, the other one’s carrying it for him, who would you assume is in charge?” Good point. And even if our dogs are becoming less self-reliant, the whole puppy-dog-eyes system seems to be working out pretty well for them.
Maybe dogs should start coming with “I’m with stupid” shirts for both the dog and the human. Oh well, at least we’re happy in ruv! 🙂
Featured image via humorhound