Facing a treat-filled puzzle, wolves proved less willing than dogs to give
Humans may be a bad influence on their best friends — at least when it comes to problem-solving. In a task that wasn’t very tough, wolves outperformed dogs. All any of the animals had to do was tug the lid off of a food container.
Monique Udell studies animal behavior at Oregon State University in Corvallis. In recent tests, canine were given a closed, plastic storage box containing a sausage treat. Eight of the 10 wolves successfully gnawed, pawed and ripped their way into the container — then gobbled up the treat. In contrast, just one in 20 dogs succeeded at the same challenge.
The social tendencies of dogs may be getting in the way of persistent, independent struggling that would have freed the treat, Udell now suggests.
She tested 10 pet dogs and another 10 dogs from an animal shelter (that had each had some history of pethood). In one set of tests, a person was nearby but did not encourage or discourage the dogs. Those dogs typically spent 10 to 15 percent of their time gazing at the person. They spent a mere 5 percent of their time or less touching the container.
Udell offered the same challenge to wolves. These animals had been raised and fed by people but still lived outdoors. Here, the wolves barely looked at a nearby person. Instead, they devoted about 90 percent of each two-minute trial to grappling with the box holding a treat.
When someone hovered over the dogs and actively encouraged them to keep trying to open the box, the dogs did spend more time tackling the problem. A few more even managed to open the box. But their success rate still did not match the wolves. The dogs and wolves also were tested when no one was present. But even now, the dogs didn’t paw or mouth the box much more than they did when a human was present.
Udell published her findings September 16 in Biology Letters.