Differences in persistence between dogs and wolves in an unsolvable task in the absence of humans

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Despite being closely related, dogs perform worse than wolves in independent problem-solving tasks. These differences in problem-solving performance have been attributed to dogs’ greater reliance on humans, who are usually present when problem-solving tasks are presented. However, more fundamental motivational factors or behavioural traits such as persistence, motor diversity and neophobia may also be responsible for differences in task performance. Hence, to better understand what drives the differences between dogs’ and wolves’ problem-solving performance, it is essential to test them in the absence of humans. Here, we tested equally raised and kept dogs and wolves with two unsolvable tasks, a commonly used paradigm to study problem-solving behaviour in these species. Differently from previous studies, we ensured no humans were present in the testing situation. We also ensured that the task was unsolvable from the start, which eliminated the possibility that specific manipulative behaviours were reinforced. This allowed us to measure both persistence and motor diversity more accurately. In line with previous studies, we found wolves to be more persistent than dogs. We also found motor diversity to be linked to persistence and persistence to be linked to contact latency. Finally, subjects were consistent in their performance between the two tasks. These results suggest that fundamental differences in motivation to interact with objects drive the differences in the performance of dogs and wolves in problem-solving tasks. Since correlates of problem-solving success, that is persistence, neophobia, and motor diversity are influenced by a species’ ecology, our results support the socioecological hypothesis, which postulates that the different ecological niches of the two species (dogs have evolved to primarily be scavengers and thrive on and around human refuse, while wolves have evolved to primarily be group hunters and have a low hunting success rate) have, at least partly, shaped their behaviours.




Rao, A., Bernasconi, L., Lazzaroni, M., Marshall-Pescini, S., & Range, F. (2018). Differences in persistence between dogs and wolves in an unsolvable task in the absence of humans. PeerJ, 2018(11). https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.5944

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