Wolf Awareness is a non-profit Canadian organization dedicated to the conservation of wolves through research and public education about wolf ecology.

Who’s Got the Smarts?

Date: 13th June 2017

One of the challenges of dog ownership is communication. I live with 70+ pounds of German Shepherd with an activity level that’s off the charts. Having him understand me and vice versa is imperative for a harmonious relationship. Kobi understands many verbal commands and I’ve learned to comprehend what his intense, laser stare might mean in many different circumstances, but there’s more to it. He also appears to be able to interpret my body language and subtle moves as to what I’m going to do next. It’s almost as if he’s reading my mind.

Dr. Harry Frank, Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Psychology, University of Michigan has done some very interesting studies regarding the intelligence of dogs and wolves. The results of these experiments have shed light on my “mind-reading” canid companion.

Dr. Frank set up a series of problem solving situations for two groups of canids – Wolf puppies and Alaskan Malamute puppies. Both groups were of a similar age. The tasks were variations of T-shaped mazes, oddity tests and other challenges and the results are fascinating and bring into focus what is meant by intelligence.

One of the tests involved a T-shaped maze. The challenge for the animal was to move right or left by responding to an arbitrary clue (a light or whistle). Fifty percent of the dogs achieved a correct response 85% of the time after 30 trials. The wolves were unable to master this test.

In another test the challenge was to get food from an enclosure using a mechanical device such as a lever. The dogs used a trial and error approach whereas the wolves often examined the setup from all angles and then solved the problem on the first attempt. Trial and error conducted mentally is evidence that wolves are capable of internal, mental representation of external reality. To put it another way, wolves are capable of thought.

Dogs are able to learn to respond to arbitrary clues to complete a task.

Another series of experiments involved the use of the “Oddity Test”. In these tests three blocks are presented, two black and one white or two white and one black. A food treat is always under the odd coloured block. This test can also be done using different materials or different shapes. In this test wolves were much better than dogs. One wolf pup only took 30 trials for mastery. In similar studies with chimpanzees, subjects often required 2,000 trials to master the task.

Wolves appear to be much better at problem-solving than dogs.

So what is the “take away” from all of this? Dogs are much better at learning arbitrary clues. Wolves are much better when it comes to sensory clues linked to mechanically visible ways to solve a problem. In fact wolves operate at a skill level of a three to five year old child. Several wolf researchers have remarked on wolves learning to unlock gates and doors controlled by levers and complex latches by simply watching humans entering and leaving the enclosures.

Why have these two species evolved problem solving skills which are so disparate?

Wolves live in a wilderness environment where a wrong decision can easily result in fatal consequences. Trial and error is not an option as the first choice must be the correct choice.

My dog, however, lives in a very complex human environment and relies on me to keep him safe. Like other dogs, he learns by trial and error to get what he wants or learn what to do to please me. He has also trained me to open doors, retrieve toys under the couch and keeps me posted as to when it’s time to eat.

It’s amazing how effective his penetrating looks can be.

-By W.H. “Hank” Halliday

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