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Canine Cognition Study: Domestication Made Dogs Much Lazier Than Their Wild Counterparts

Sep 17, 2015 01:35 PM EDT
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In order to better understand what goes on inside the mind of a dog, researchers have turned to citizen scientists and their family pets. Roughly 500 dog owners from around the world have contributed valuable information to a recent Duke University study on the cognitive and problem-solving skills of dogs.

According to a news release, the citizen scientists were asked to play the same games at home that researchers were also conducting in the lab. For example, in one "memory vs. smell" experiment, dog owners were asked to hide a treat under one of two cups while their dogs watched them do so. Then they were asked to switched to the another cup when the dogs weren't looking. When the dogs were allowed to retrieve the treat, most dogs selected the cup they remembered seeing it placed under by their trusted owners, suggesting that the dogs relied more heavily on their memory (and perhaps their trust in their owners) than their innate and very powerful sense of smell, researchers noted.

A video of this test can be seen online, courtesy of YouTube.

"Most people think dogs use their sense of smell for everything," Evan MacLean, a senior research scientist at Duke, said in the release. "But actually dogs use a whole range of senses when solving problems." 

Brian Hare, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke, studies primate and dog cognition. He developed a website called Dognition, for the researchers to upload their data too.

"They're just games," Hare explained in a statement. "The owners love playing them and the dogs love playing them. I realized more people could play them if they were online."

Over 17,000 dog owners have uploaded their data to share with researchers on Dognition. The collaborative study was recently published in PLOS ONE

"The data these dog owners are producing is quality data," MacLean said. "It matches the results we see coming out of the top research groups all over the world." 

Does all this suggest that domesticate dogs are lazier and more dependent than their wild wolfish counterparts? At least one study conducted by Oregon State University seems to indicate that that's the case. 

When researchers gave both species a "puzzle box," the wolves successfully broke it open, while the dogs looked up at their owners for help. This study suggests that pack animals such as canines can be conditioned toward dependence – and stop thinking for themselves – when they have humans around to do things for them.

"Wolves may have more opportunities for independent problem-solving within their environment, and a greater history of success obtaining trapped food independently owing to their relative strength," Dr. Monique Udell, an animal behavior researcher at Oregon State University, said in a statement. "Consequently, dogs' behaviour may be the product of conditioned dependence on humans, or conditioned inhibition of independent problem-solving behavior when confronted with a novel task."

These findings were recently published in Biology Letters

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