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.
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."
As an example, Overall says her neighbors have no expectation of their pet beagles and do little to stimulate them. "They may not touch the depth of cognition that those dogs have," says Overall who has "a house full of Australian shepherds." Overall expects her dogs to be "super smart" and often runs cognition tests to see what they'll do. In a test with a problem-solving task, her dogs solved the problem in less than 6 seconds — even her slowest dogs.
While Overall says that the cognitive tests the Australian researchers used are novel, she says that a basic pet is just as likely to encounter the task described in the study as a wild canine or as a working dog. "Novel tests may have a lot to tell us, but we need to be careful in defining variants," she says. "Exposure is what we can't evaluate in these animals."
Also of note to Overall are the types of people who volunteer their dogs for such studies. "They have a different sensibility about dogs than is true for the underlying dog population, and we have no way of evaluating that," she says.
Overall's concluding question to researchers is, "Are these animals exposed to the same types of task-related opportunities in their environment? If we don't know the answer, we cannot draw broad conclusions."
Behaviorist Bonnie Beaver, DVM, Dipl. ACVB, of Texas A&M University says the basic thrust of the research in this latest study is an attempt to determine "intelligence."
"But we really need to think of it as environmental intelligence. What IQ or skill set does an animal need to survive in the environment in which it lives?" she asks. "If we put a dog in a wolf's environment, it won't do well, or if we put it in a coyote's environment, it won't do well. But that's not the environment it lives in and vice versa."
Beaver cites the ostrich as an example to consider regarding intelligence. For some time, raising ostriches was all the rage as there was big money to hatch eggs, according to Beaver. "When veterinarians would see the birds in the clinic, people kept saying, 'They are the dumbest — they'll peck at anything shiny.' But consider how many thousands of years they have existed in the wild and done well. They are adapted for their environment — not for our environment," she says.
The same is true for dogs, according to Beaver. The animals were socialized and tamed and then domesticated to live in our environment. "Even if you subcategorize that, certain breeds have been developed in certain skills to make them better in one environment versus another. For example, Border collies need a job. They don't do well cooped up in an apartment, just as Pomeranians aren't going to do well herding sheep."
Regarding the study results, Beaver asks whether a dog has to worry about how to get around the corner to find special food. "All it has to know is how to walk into a kitchen."
The study shows that there have been changes within the canine species that make each one different, according to Beaver, who points out that a dog is not simply a tamed coyote or tamed wolf.
"Yet, even a selected population of wolves could be trained over thousands of years to act like dogs if adapted to environment. Through specific breeding for specific traits, you can change a population. That's what domestication is," she says.
Andrew Luescher, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ECVBM, director of the animal behavior clinic at Purdue University, says the current study is comparing apples and oranges and the sensory/cognitive abilities of two different types of animals.
"An animal adapts genetically to its environment. We've domesticated over a period of 12,000 to 14,000 years. Long before that the dog split off from wolves — that was the dog's own decision — not ours," he explains.
He notes that most of what happened in domestication is that dogs retained juvenile character into adulthood.
"Dogs just never grow up. It makes them less able to negotiate problems. We made them more juvenile, which is what we need to help them fit into society," he explains. "The problem-solving ability is very much influenced by early environment. If they haven't grown up from the puppy stage, it's not a fair thing to compare them with each other."
Another point of note with this study is that it is not known what kind of dogs researchers used.
"Dogs vary in terms of trainability. In some dogs we have selected for trainability, others against trainability. Trainability is not necessarily a trait for family pets. A dog that is highly trainable, such as the Australian shepherd, is selected for wanting a controlled environment. The dog acts in his environment in a way that gives him predictable outcome. If they are trained, they want to exert control over treats they get, avoiding punishment. If you have these animals in a family situation, we are inconsistent with them and frustrate them," he says.
Ms. Skernivitz is a freelance writer in Cleveland, Ohio. She is formerly a senior associate editor of DVM Newsmagazine.