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Dogs and wolves have social learning ability and can remember where people hid food

In a recent study conducted at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Austria, evidence suggests that both wolves and dogs rely not just on their sense of smell but also on their observational memory and social learning when trying to locate hidden food.

The research was led by Sebastian Vetter and his team and published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE. The study builds upon prior research on social learning in wolves and dogs.

Study focused on social learning

Social learning involves acquiring knowledge by observing or interacting with others. A specific type of this learning, known as observational spatial memory, entails remembering the location where another individual has hidden food.

To delve deeper into this phenomenon, Vetter and his colleagues designed an experiment at the Wolf Science Center in Ernsbrunn, Austria. The subjects of this experiment comprised 9 timber wolves and 8 mongrel dogs. These animals were tested on their capability to locate 4, 6, or 8 caches of food, with the variable being whether they had observed a human hide the food or not.

What the scientists learned

The results were quite revealing. Both species located more of the initial 5 food caches faster and traversed shorter distances when they had witnessed the hiding process.

This behavior clearly implies that the wolves and dogs didn’t rely solely on their sense of smell to find the food, reinforcing the idea of observational spatial memory’s existence in these animals.

Interestingly, even with the presence or absence of visual cues, wolves consistently outperformed dogs in locating the hidden caches. However, this doesn’t necessarily point to a superior cognitive ability in wolves. The researchers speculate that the difference might be rooted in other characteristics, such as persistence or the motivation driven by food.

Reflecting on the broader implications of their findings, the researchers commented, “While domestication probably affected dogs’ willingness to adjust to humans, the results of the current study collaborate previous findings suggesting that cognitive abilities do not differ very much between dogs and wolves.”

This study contributes significantly to the understanding of cognition in wolves and dogs and might reshape how we train and interact with these animals in various settings, from household pets to conservation efforts.

More about social learning

Social learning is a fascinating process through which individuals acquire new behaviors, skills, or information by observing and imitating others. Unlike individual trial-and-error learning, where an individual learns solely through their own experiences, social learning allows for faster adaptation by leveraging the knowledge and experiences of others.

At its core, social learning hinges on observation. From a young age, humans watch their peers, elders, and even media representations to learn how to act, speak, and even think. For example, a child might learn to tie their shoes by watching a parent or sibling, skipping the painstaking process of figuring it out alone.

Animals also practice social learning

As noted earlier in this article, humans aren’t the only species that benefit from social learning. Many animals, from birds to primates, observe and mimic others in their group.

For instance, a young chimpanzee might learn to use a stick to extract termites by watching an elder demonstrate the technique. This mode of learning has considerable advantages.

Efficiency: By observing, individuals can avoid potential risks and pitfalls that come with trial-and-error methods.

Cultural Transmission: Social learning plays a pivotal role in passing down traditions, customs, and techniques from one generation to the next.

Adaptation: In changing environments, observing successful behaviors in peers can lead to quicker adaptation.

In the modern age, with the rise of digital media and online communities, the scope of social learning has expanded exponentially. Platforms like YouTube, where one can watch and learn anything from cooking to coding, are testaments to the power and reach of social learning in today’s interconnected world.

In essence, social learning is a testament to the age-old saying, “Monkey see, monkey do.” By observing and imitating, we not only preserve valuable knowledge but also foster innovation and adaptation, proving that sometimes, watching is indeed learning.

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