Are We Teaching Our Dogs to Be Lazy?

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Having two dogs, I know what excites them: treats! While sometimes they get freebies, I often make them work for it – stuffing the snacks in Kongs. They try their hardest to get those treats out: licking the toy, pawing at it, throwing it around and shaking it. If all else fails, they look at me for help. And I usually give it to them. According to new research, this sort of classical conditioning may be making my pooches not motivated problem solvers.

Recent tests show by helping our dogs solve problems, we may be dumbing them down.

In an experiment conducted by Monique Udell, an assistant professor of animal and rangeland sciences at Oregon State University, 20 dog and 10 “human-socialized” wolves were presented with a solvable puzzle: meat was put inside a plastic container, with rope attached to the lid. With some determination, animals would be able to open the container and grab their treat. Ten of the dogs were from shelters, as past research has shown that homeless dogs were less responsive to pets.

Related: New Research Sheds Light on the Evolution of Dogs

Udell had each dog try to get the treat when a familiar person was present (owner, caretaker) and without anyone near the canine. The pup was given two minutes in each scenario to complete the task. If he failed in both environments, the dog was given a third try in which the familiar human would encourage the pooch to open the container.

Udell found that when a human was present, just one dog (from the pet group) opened the box. However, eight of the 10 wolves managed to get to the prize. When there were no humans present, again most of the wolves were able to open the container, while only one dog (this time from the shelter group) managed to get it open. In the cheerleading scenario, one of nine shelter dogs opened the box, while one of the eight pet dogs did so.

The results seem to indicate that compared to wolves, dogs are overly dependent on us, which could result in them being less motivated. This research findings are in contrast to past studies in which the dog was described as more intelligent than the wolf when they turned to us for help. The difference is past studies presented the animals with a problem that was impossible to solve: usually a box containing food that could in no way be opened. In this case, it was a sign of intelligence for pups to seek out assistance.

Udell’s findings were published in Biology Letters.

Related: Just Discovered: Dogs Ability to Scan Faces Is Similar to Humans

Image via Flickr/Marcelo Braga

H/T Smithsonian