In a dirt-floored room in Austria, a puppy sniffed and pawed at a wooden box with a treat inside. It circled the box over and over, unable to find a way in. Finally it sat at the feet of a nearby human and looked up at her appealingly, swishing its tail. The woman stared at the ceiling, ignoring the puppy. The answer wouldn’t come from her—if the dog wanted the treat, it would have to imitate the way it had seen another dog open the box earlier.
The puppy ultimately failed, as did most other dogs in this experiment. But all of the wolves that tried it succeeded easily. The reason may be that in creating domestic dogs that pay attention to us, we robbed them of the ability to learn from each other.
Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi carried out this study at the Wolf Science Center in Austria. The two animal behavior researchers wanted to know how well dogs and wolves can learn from their own kind. We’ve bred dogs to be excellent at learning from us. But their ancestors were wolves that lived in packs and relied on each other; have their skills from that time been lost?
The teachers for both groups of canines would be domestic dogs, which are easier to train. (The authors figured the wolves would see a dog as basically one of their own. And because wolves and dogs cross paths regularly at the research center, both animals were comfortable having each other around.) Range and Virányi used a simple puzzle box that opened with the push of a lever. They trained one dog to open the box by pushing the lever with its paw, and another dog to use its mouth instead.
Then it was time for class. The pupils were 12 wolves and 15 mutts, all just six months old and raised in the Wolf Science Center. On the day of the experiment, a dog or wolf subject was brought into a room with the puzzle box in the center. While one researcher held the subject to the side of the room, the other researcher held one of the teacher dogs. When she told it “Box!” the teacher dog trotted over to the box, opened it with its preferred method, and returned to her side. Then the first researcher walked the student dog to the box and let it eat the treat inside.
After the student had seen this demonstration (and eaten a treat) six times in a row, it was let off its leash. The time had come to apply what it had learned—or not, as it turned out.
Here’s a dog trying to open the puzzle box on its own (the lever is on the right):
You can watch the whole video here if you want to see a heartbreaking five minutes of sniffing and tail wagging. Only four of the 15 dogs managed to get the box open; just two of them could do it a second time. And none of the successful dogs used the technique (paw versus mouth) they’d been shown. Even if they’d learned from the teacher dog that the box was openable, they didn’t copy their teacher’s method.
Wolves, however, were star pupils.
Every one of the 12 wolves got the box open on its first try. Nine of them matched the method they had seen their teacher use. Most of the wolves could repeat the trick over and over again.
Range and Virányi checked for other explanations besides the unflattering one that domestic dogs are just not very clever at learning from each other. Were the dogs too young? Wolves develop more quickly than domestic dogs. So the authors repeated the experiment when the same dogs were a year and a half old—but they did no better. Were wolves naturally skilled at opening the box, without needing to be taught? A control group of wolves tried the puzzle box without watching the teacher first; they failed.
Nor was the answer that wolves were bolder or more curious about prodding the box. Dogs and wolves were equally quick to run up to the box and even to sniff around the lever. If anything, wolves were more cautious; one of the wolves was so scared when the box opened that he refused to try a second time.
The only remaining answer was that dogs didn’t learn from each other as easily as wolves learned from them. If the dogs at the Austrian research center are representative of domestic dogs worldwide, this may mean that dogs lost their power to pay attention to each other when we bred them to pay attention to us.
Part of what makes a dog a dog is its eagerness to cooperate with humans. That skill, the authors write, may have started out as eagerness to cooperate with the pack. As we domesticated dogs, we would have selected and bred the ones that could best turn their focus to us. We cared less about how well they learned from each other, so that skill fell away. As we made them into our best friends, then, we may have forever turned them away from their old companions.
Images: Range and Zirányi.
Range F, & Virányi Z (2014). Wolves are better imitators of conspecifics than dogs. PloS one, 9 (1) PMID: 24489744