Canine Intelligence: Wolves Lost Ability to Learn from Peers through Domestication by Humans (or ‘Have People Made Dogs Stupid?’)

Wolf Shima, born in 2008 in Herberstein, the Wolf Science Centre's first she-wolf. Photo kindly provided by Peter Kaut for non-commercial use.
Wolf Shima, born in 2008 in Herberstein, the Wolf Science Centre’s first she-wolf. Photo kindly provided by Peter Kaut for non-commercial use.

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This week I came across some research in the German language press which I would like to share with the wider international community. The research was carried out in Austria by Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi who are research scientists in Veterinary Medicine at the University of Vienna. Together with Kurt Kotrschal they established the Wolf Science Centre at the Game Park in Ernstbrunn (50 km North of Vienna and well worth a visit – the park also has an impressive castle). If you click on the link here you can see photos of the castle and also of the two ladies who wrote this research (demonstrating that they are not above giving the Schloss a good scrub to get it into a suitable condition for its VIP Wolf population).

Generally speaking we tend to think of the dog as man’s best friend. Our relationship with our canine partners is probably at least 30,000 years old dating from when our stone age ancestors first tamed wolves to help them on hunting expeditions. You would imagine that after such a long period together some elements of human intelligence will have rubbed off on the dogs helping them to become mentally more advanced than their forbears, the wolves.

Young Wolves Chitto and Tala, originally from Minnesota USA, now residing in the Wolf Science Centre in Austria. Photo kindly provided by Peter Kaut.
Young Wolves Chitto and Tala, originally from Minnesota USA, now residing in the Wolf Science Centre in Austria. Photo kindly provided by Peter Kaut.

However, a recent study by the above mentioned scientists at the University of Vienna, seems, at least in part, to contradict this assumption. It would appear that wolves are much more capable of learning from their peers then dogs.

For the experiment the scientists trained two mixed breed dogs (‘teachers’) to use their paws to open a box in which food treats were kept. Then they allowed series of wolves and dogs to observe how these ‘teacher’ dogs were able to get their food treats.

In this test the wolves performed markedly better than the dogs. All 14 wolves tested managed to open the box using the mechanism with their paws in exactly the same way as the teacher dogs. Of the 15 dogs tested only four managed to open the box and of these four some of the dogs used their teeth rather than their paws. At the time of the first experiment both the wolves and the dogs were about six months old and had been brought up in similar environments. To avoid the possibility that the wolves were simply developing more rapidly than the dogs the experiment was repeated with the dogs a few months later. The result was the same.

Young wolves Wamblee, Kay and Tala from the USA and Canada, now residing at the Wolf Science Centre near Vienna. Photo kindly provided by Peter Kaut for non-commercial purposes.
Young wolves Wamblee, Kay and Tala from the USA and Canada, now residing at the Wolf Science Centre near Vienna. Photo kindly provided by Peter Kaut for non-commercial purposes.

The researchers explained that in their natural habitat wolves depend strongly on close cooperation with one another. They must work together in packs to defend their territory or to hunt and overpower larger prey. As a result evolution has favoured those animals that pay attention to, and learn from, the activities of their peers. Dogs in their domesticated environment were no longer dependant on this peer attentiveness for survival. As a result these intra-species cooperative skills have diminished with time.

However these peer observational learning abilities have been replaced by something else, namely the dog’s ability to accept and integrate with humans and develop a more advanced inter-species rather than intra-species understanding (in other words through dog-to-human rather than dog-to-dog interaction). So perhaps they were not that stupid after all!

If you are interested to see and learn more about the life and work with wolves and dogs enjoyed by the team at the Wolf Science Centre I can highly recommend a visit to their English Language website which you can find here. At the site you will find lots of excellent pictures of the wolves and biographies about the individual animals which bring them to life. Alternatively why not visit the centre in person  – I certainly will be looking them up next time I visit my son in Vienna. I am sure they will also welcome any contributions you are prepared to make to support their work (just click on the ‘Spenden’ button at the bottom of each page).

Wolves Shima and Kaspar of the Wolf Science Centre near Vienna having a bit of a sing-along. Photo kindly provided for non-commercial use by Peter Kaut.
Wolves Shima and Kaspar of the Wolf Science Centre near Vienna having a bit of a sing-along. Photo kindly provided for non-commercial use by Peter Kaut.

All the pictures featured in this Canine Press news article have been kindly provided by Peter Kurt via the Wolf Science Centre on the understanding they are not for commercial use without the photographer’s permission. If you would like to use any of them as a desktop background just click on the photo and save it to your hard disk.

If you wish to read the original scientific article written by Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi you can find it in English here. For our German reading visitors you may be interested in the German article which first drew my attention to the subject. This can be found here.

Chris Duggleby   

Now prepare yourself for an uplifting experience! 

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