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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Not all canines learn from other canines

We all know that dogs evolved from wolves. Along with domestication came a much greater sensitivity to humans, but a lesser ability to learn from members of their own species. At least, that’s the hypothesis that Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi of the University of Vienna wished to test. In particular, they wondered whether wolves could learn from other wolves. Because dogs don’t seem to learn much from watching each other.

Sixteen six-month old wolves and fifteen six-month old mixed breed dogs were the test subjects for these experiments. All the animals were housed and raised under the same conditions in similar sized groups so that they were equally socialized to other canines and to humans.

For the experiment, the pups were allowed to watch a trained dog (unfortunately, the researchers did not have an adult wolf that could serve as demonstrator) open a box with either its paw or its mouth. Inside was a treat that the pup was permitted to take once the box was opened. After the wolf or dog puppy had observed the box being opened at least six times, it was allowed to try to get at the treat by itself.

A) two experimental apparatuses for different sized puppies
B) a paw demonstration
C) a mouth demonstration.
All the wolf pups were successful in opening the box by themselves. In contrast, only four dogs got the box open. Three quarters of the wolves used the same method they had observed to open the box, whereas none of the four successful dogs used the method they had seen the demonstrator dog using. The wolves also continued to be successful at opening the box in subsequent trials. Only two dogs managed to open the box more than once. 

The success of the animals did seem to hinge on whether they had paid attention during the demonstration. Among wolf pups who had not seen a demonstration of how to open the box, only one in five were able to get the treat out.

Just to make sure there wasn’t a maturity difference between six-month old dogs and wolves, the dogs were retested at nine-months of age, with similar results. This time a different set of four dogs managed to get the box open, but still without using the method they had observed.

While the dogs did look at the humans for help, by the time they did so, the wolves had already opened the box. In other words, the dogs spent just as long as the wolves trying to open the boxes on their own, they just weren’t able to figure them out.

These data suggest that wolf pups are much better at copying the behavior of other canines than dogs are. Domestication may have altered how canines relate to each other as much as how they relate to us.

Friederike Range, & Zsófia Virányi (2014). Wolves Are Better Imitators of Conspecifics than Dogs PLOS ONE DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0086559.

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