Dogs give up problem-solving tasks and look to humans to help them far faster than wolves, suggesting domestication has compromised this ability. Researchers at the Oregon State University found that while wolves were successful at a task 80% of the time, dogs showed just a 5% success rate.
The team analysed the behaviour of 10 pet dogs, 10 dogs from shelters and 10 wolves that had been hand-reared by humans from two weeks of age. All were given up to three opportunities to open a solvable puzzle box in three situations – one where they were alone, another where they were with a neutral human companion and a third where they were encouraged by the human.
Wolves were found to be more persistent and more successful, solving the puzzle 80% of the time when they were alone or in the neutral situation. In comparison, the shelter and pet dogs had a success rate of just 5% in these conditions. When encouraged, they were very slightly more successful.
The researchers said previous studies have shown dogs look to humans when presented with an unsolvable task – soliciting help from them. This is called "looking back" behaviour and is thought to be the result of the dog either being very advanced socially, or less independent/able to solve tasks. If they would exhibit this behaviour where they could solve the problem themselves was unknown, however.
"As in previous studies, dogs spent significantly more time gazing at the human compared with wolves," the authors wrote in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters. "However, they also failed to persist on the independent problem-solving task, even though, in this case, the task was solvable. This suggests that dogs may not have been responding to the unsolvable nature of prior 'unsolvable task' experiments, but instead give up prematurely on such tasks in general — possibly owing to a hypersensitivity to, or dependence on, social cues."
They said the fact both shelter and pet dogs failed to persist at the task suggests social inhibition of problem-solving behaviour is even more generalised than previously thought. They added: "Dogs may err on the side of caution with novel tasks, inhibiting independent interaction in the absence of a social directive; a choice that might result in greater long-term success in human homes."