Dogs Play Dumb for Our Sake

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Our domestication of wolves, and our own dominant nature, has resulted in dogs that are so submissive that they suppress their independence and intellect, new research finds.

Dogs wait for orders, while wolves cooperate with each other to solve problems, according to the study, which was recently presented at the Animal Behavior Society’s meeting at Princeton University. In a sense, we’ve created submissive mini-me’s that mirror our own difficulties in creating egalitarian societies.

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As a result, the researchers advise that we reconsider the notion of “dog-human cooperation.”

Co-author Friederike Range explained to Virginia Morell of the journal Science that our ancestors bred dogs for obedience and dependency.

“It’s not about having a common goal,” Range said. “It’s about being with us, but without conflict. We tell them something, and they obey.”

Range and colleague Zsófia Virányi, who are both scientists at the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, tested both dogs and wolves to determine the animals’ tolerance of their fellow pack members during a mealtime challenge.

All of the animals, including the wolves, had been raised at the Wolf Science Center in Game Park Ernstbrunn, Austria. The wolves were therefore somewhat accustomed to being around humans.

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For the study, the scientists paired a high-ranking dog with a low-ranking member of their pack and set out a bowl of food. They did the same thing with a pair of wolves.

In every matchup, “the higher ranking dog monopolized the food,” Range said at the meeting. “But in the wolf tests, both high- and low-ranking animals had access” and were able to chow down at the same time. At times, the more dominant wolves were “mildly aggressive toward their subordinates, but a lower ranking dog won’t even try” when paired with a top dog, Range said. “They don’t dare to challenge.”

Wolves were also better able to find food after following the gazes of their fellow pack buddies.

“They are very cooperative with each other, and when they have a disagreement or must make a group decision, they have a lot of communication or ‘talk’ first,” Range said.

Dogs don’t seem to do this. Instead, higher-ranking dogs “may react aggressively” toward their subordinates. It basically sounds like a day at the office for many people in non-leadership roles, so humans have transferred their own challenges to the dogs they’ve domesticated.

Yet another study at the meeting supported the findings.

For this second experiment, animal behaviorist Monique Udell of Oregon State University presented 20 adult dogs (10 pets and 20 from shelters) as well as 10 captive wolves with sealed containers of sausage. Each dog or wolf was allowed 2 minutes to try and open the containers.

The dogs experienced epic fail. Not one succeeded. But the wolves aced the test.

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Udell said that “as the dog grows and becomes more dependent on its human owner [their independent] behavior is inhibited.”

Here’s the clincher: the researchers conducted the same test with dog puppies and they all succeeded, just as the wolves did. Because adult dogs “suppress their independence, it’s difficult to know what their normal problem-solving abilities are,” Udell said at the meeting.

It makes me wonder how dominant humans are affecting the behavior and intellectual potential of those they subjugate.

It will be interesting to see if we evolve different, better ways of connecting with dogs, not to mention people.

Photo: A sheepdog. Credit: ThinkStock

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