Has domestication made dogs dumb?

Has domestication made dogs dumb?

Study examines effect of canines' reliance on human caregivers
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Sep 01, 2010

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA — The question of whether dogs have become too "domesticated" has researchers in Australia putting canines to the test for answers.

However, according to animal behaviorists in the United States, the conclusions that the researchers gathered may be less than definitive and should be regarded with caution.


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The research, led by Bradley Smith and Carla Litchfield of the School of Psychology at the University of South Australia, seemed to indicate that domestication has led dogs to lose abilities to solve problems, relying instead on their human caregivers to manage their problems. The latest research also found that wolves and wild dogs passed basic intelligence tests that domesticated dogs failed.

The study, set for publication in the journal Animal Behaviour, tested the problem-solving skills of domesticated dogs and dingos (which are also primarily domesticated dogs that live in the Australian outback and have more "wild" features and instincts) through what is called "the detour task." The task measures spatial problem-solving skills as animals move around a transparent barrier (researchers used a fence with detour doors that moved in and out) for a reward, which, for study purposes, was a bowl of food.

Every dingo discovered the food incentive in about 20 seconds, using detour doors to reach it. Domesticated dogs showed signs of confusion, according to researchers. Their response was to paw or dig at the fence, bark from frustration or bark for help.

Karen Overall, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVB, animal behaviorist at the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, conducts similar cognitive tests with various dogs, especially working dogs. She says there is a huge range of variability with the test that may be associated with where the domestic dogs were trained and raised.

"I think we need to be very cautious about evolutionary interpretations. Domestication has more to do with the individual dog than breed," Overall says. In the latest study, she points out that the animals used are sanctuary-raised dingos.

"Some animals get a lot of social exposure; some get none. In all the tests we've done, all of the working dogs come from the same pool. But even if contractors get their dogs from the same pool, when the dogs go to different facilities, the dogs have different abilities based on environment," she says.

Another possible reason for the difference in skill sets among different dog types is that, according to Overall, in many instances, today's pets rarely are asked to do complex tasks. "We may be guilty of gross negligence of pets. Many domestic dogs don't do such tasks unless they are trained to be service dogs. Even with service dogs, some do well with complex tasks; others do not — it's individually based," she says.

Not so for Overall's dogs, one of which can unlock even a deadbolt, because they are trained to be service dogs. One of her dogs does one-trial learning, in which he watches something once and accidentally does it. He learned in one try to go through a revolving door and to take the stairs on the escalator (and jump when he gets to the top).

Wild and domesticated canines solve problems differently, according to Overall, who says that everyone needs to be "careful about any inference" to brain capabilities. "We may have the world's smartest canines, and we're not using their brains," she says. "I wonder if what we haven't done is select for pet owners who like a challenge versus those who just want a simple companion."