ERNSTBRUNN, Austria — Twenty five miles north of Vienna, under the shade of an oak forest, packs of wolves run, play, and contribute to science.
Working with a team of international researchers, these human-socialized wolves recently participated in an experiment that has given them bragging rights over their domesticated cousins. In this recent study out of the Wolf Science Center, it was shown that wolves have a better understanding of cause and effect than dogs.
“The results of our study suggest that domestication has affected the causal understanding of our dogs,” says Radboud University’s Michelle Lampe in a press release. “It cannot be excluded however, that the differences can be explained by the fact that wolves are more persistent to explore objects than dogs. Dogs are conditioned to receive food from us, whereas wolves have to find food themselves in nature.”
In the experiment, the scientists had 14 dogs and 12 wolves make a choice between two containers, one with food inside, one without.
While the mechanics of the experiment were quite simple, the results were telling.
First testing if the animals could interpret direct eye-contact and pointing gestures to choose the correct container, the researchers found that both dogs and wolves could follow the meaning of the gestures — but only if they were given direct eye-contact.
The second part of the test required the canines to make their own inferences about which container had food inside. Before allowing the animals to choose, the scientists provided causal clues, such as shaking the one with food in it to produce a rattling noise.
It was this latter part of the experiment that distinguished the wolves from dogs. Given only such causal clues and no other communication, only the wolves reliably chose the container with food.
While the wolves’ superior ability to infer which container had the reward inside was of interest, the researchers also said their ability to interpret human eye-contact was notable.
“The wolves’ ability to understand human communicative cues may have facilitated domestication,” says Zsófia Virányi, a researcher from Vetmeduni Vienna. “However, working with socialized wolves may have also impacted the results, as our animals are used to human contact. This could mask differences between the dogs and wolves, such as that dogs learn more easily about human communication throughout their lives.”
The researchers added that one unique aspect of their study was that it compared dogs and wolves living in the same environment, with the same life history and training. They said this made it the first study to compare the two species with this type of experiment.
The work echoed findings of other comparisons of the two species that found greater logical ability in the wolf versus the dog. In one such earlier example, wolves were shown to be much more likely to be able to figure out how to open a puzzle box containing food.
Another puzzlebox study also showed that wolves tend to be more successful and that dogs tended to look to humans for help more often during the experiment.
Discussing such wolf vs dog experiments in a Christian Science Monitor article, researcher Vilmos Csanyi posits that dogs are perhaps more motivated to please humans than just go after the food rewards.
And though most experiments do seem to favor the logical ability of wolves over dogs, dog owners should still be assured of the surprising intelligence of their pets.
Indeed, a recent study from the University of Arizona showed that dogs and toddlers have similar levels of social intelligence.
Drawing further connections between humans and canines, the Wolf Science Center researchers are also studying cooperation strategies and the role of the bonding chemical oxytocin in their formation of relationships.
The paper detailing the Vienna experiment was published this week in the journal Scientific Reports.