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Dogs understand humans in ways that wolves never will

It seems that 14,000 years of domestication has taught dogs to understand aspects of human behavior that their wolf ancestors never latched onto.

Researchers at Duke University ran a recent study that compared the behavior of dog puppies and wolf puppies. The wolves were raised with round-the-clock human interaction that included being hand-fed and sleeping in the caretakers’ beds. By contrast, the dog puppies remained with their mothers and littermates and were exposed to less interaction with humans.

The puppies were then given tasks that showcased their skills at interpreting what humans are thinking. In one test, a food treat was hidden in one of two bowls and a researcher pointed or stared at the correct bowl in order to give the puppy a clue. 

The results were remarkable! The dog puppies were twice as likely to find the treat and this applied to puppies as young as eight weeks old. The dog puppies simply understood that the humans were trying to help them solve the problem and took their cues from the researchers’ behavior. None of the wolf puppies did better than a random guess.

In another test, the puppies were given food in a closed container that was challenging to open. While the wolf puppies took the container away to try and solve the problem on their own, the dog puppies looked to the people for help, as if to say: “I’m stuck, can you fix this?”

Study first author Hannah Salomons explained that the dog and wolf puppies do not differ in other tests of cognitive skill, such as memory or muscle impulse control. But in terms of people-reading skills, the dog puppies clearly had social cognitive skills that the wolf puppies lacked.

“The research provides evidence that the ability of dogs to understand human gestures is a product of domestication,” said Professor Brian Hare.

The experts also found that dog puppies are 30 times more likely to approach a stranger compared to wolf puppies.

“There’s lots of different ways to be smart,” said Salomons. “Animals evolve cognition in a way that will help them succeed in whatever environment they’re living in.”

“With the dog puppies we worked with, if you walk into their enclosure they gather around and want to climb on you and lick your face, whereas most of the wolf puppies run to the corner and hide.”

For thousands of years, dogs have lived in association with humans and those that could interpret human behavior would have had a better chance of survival. The genes for their social cognitive skills have been passed down through the generations, such that today’s dogs are masters at understanding the behavioral cues given by their masters.

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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