Show a ball and your dog runs and retrieves it. Or gesture towards a piece of popcorn you dropped and your pup will take it.
These may not seem like a big deal. Of course, your dog understands you. But no other animal has the cooperative communication skills to understand complex human gestures like dogs do. Chimpanzees, the closest human relatives, are not able to do this. And the dogs’ closest relative, the wolf, can’t, either, according to a new study.
For their work, researchers at Duke University studied a group of dog puppies and a group of wolf puppies, raising them in surprisingly different ways. They gave the wolves a more traditional, puppy-like experience, while the puppies had less human interactions than usual.
They compared 44 dogs and 37 wolf puppies between 5 and 18 weeks old.
Located at the Wildlife Science Center in Minnesota, the wolf puppies were first tested to make sure they were not dog-wolf hybrids. They were raised with almost constant human attention from birth. They were hand fed and even slept with someone at night.
In contrast, most of the puppies were assistance dogs in training from Canine Companion for Independence (CCI) in Santa Rosa, California. They were all Labradors, Golden Retrievers, or mixtures of the two breeds. Even though they were surrounded by people, they had less interaction with humans than wolves.
“We raised the puppies differently to address the ‘nature versus culture’ debate surrounding dogs’ unusually high skills when it comes to understanding human communication. Are they better than most other animals because they have generally spent a lot more time with humans and had lots of opportunities to learn what a gesture, like a point, means through trial and error? Or is it more like the communication skills of human babies, a skill that develops naturally and doesn’t require extensive training or experience? First author Hannah Salomons, doctoral student in social cognition at Duke University, explains to Treehugger.
“To see if the skills of the dogs emerged from the domestication process or are simply learned by spending time with people, we bred the puppies in the reverse situations. , while we were raising the puppies without this intense human exposure.
The researchers tested both sets of dogs with a number of tasks.
In one test, researchers hid a treat in one of two bowls, then pointed and looked at where the food was hidden. In other trials, they placed a small block of wood next to the bowl where the treat was hidden. None of the puppies knew what they were supposed to do, but some figured it out faster than others.
Puppy dogs were twice as likely to figure out where to go for the surprise treat as wolf puppies, even though they had much less interaction with people.
Seventeen out of 31 puppies repeatedly chose the correct bowl. However, none of the 26 wolf puppies did more than guess at random. And in controlled trials, researchers made sure the puppies couldn’t sniff for food.
The results were published in the journal Current biology.
Not a question of intelligence
Although at first glance it might seem that puppies are just smarter than wolves, the test was not on the smartest species, says Solomons.
“Even in humans, there isn’t just one way to define ‘intelligence’ – there are many different ways of being ‘intelligent’, and the same is true of animals,” she says. “This study shows that when it comes to understanding humans’ attempts to cooperate and communicate with them, dogs excel over wolves. However, there are certainly other types of problem solving where wolves are better than dogs!
In other tests, they found that dog puppies were 30 times more likely than wolf puppies to approach a stranger.
“The wolf puppies were much more shy, especially with strangers! They showed less interest in humans in general, even people with whom they were familiar and comfortable, ”says Salomons. “Puppy dogs, on the other hand, were much more likely to approach and touch someone, whether it was a stranger or a known friend.”
When shown food that they couldn’t immediately reach, wolf puppies were more likely to try to find a way to get it on their own, while dogs often looked to humans for acquire help.
The researchers say these results test what is called the domestication hypothesis. The idea is that tens of thousands of years ago, only the friendliest wolves got close enough to humans to retrieve the remains. These friendly wolves survived, passing on the genes that made them more pleasant and less fearful and shy.
Salomons explains: “Our results suggest that the selection of a human-friendly temperament, through the process of domestication, led to changes in the development of dogs, allowing them to express the social skills inherited from their common ancestor. with the wolves in new ways towards people, and causing the early emergence of these cooperative communication skills, at the age of only a few weeks. ”