Dogs are (not) stupid wolves!

Are dogs the stupid descendants of wolves? A simple question with a complex answer? (This article was originally written in Dutch by me.
I translated it as well as possible)

Wolf and dog from the Wolf Science Center in Vienna

Dog and wolf intelligence

Sometimes people say: “Dogs, are just stupid wolves!”. And earlier I wrote that dogs’ brains are 25% smaller than those of their ancestors. It also doesn’t help the dogs that they were completely humiliated by wolves in an intelligence test in the1980s. It was as if the amateurs of your local basketball team had to compete against the Dream Team of 1992.

Four 10-wk-old Eastern timber wolves and four 10-wk-old malamutes were presented with a series of puzzle boxes that required them to perform increasingly complex manipulations to extract a food dish. Wolves averaged 5.8 successes in 8 trials, and malamutes averaged 1.5 successes.

Vilmos Csányi, a Hungarian researcher who decided to research dogs in the 1970s, found the widely shared view that dogs were nothing more than stupid wolves wrong. He suspected dogs scored so badly because the dogs thought they might be doing something they weren’t allowed to do. For example, opening a gate to get to food. In their normal living circumstances dogs are probably not allowed to open a door and get food. Csányi decided to repeat the research from the 1980s.

The Hungarian divided the dogs into two categories. Outdoor dogs, which rarely, if ever, came into the house and are used to being alone, and family dogs that mainly lived indoors. Most, but not all outdoor dogs, did not hesitate to open the gate after a person showed them how to do it. They immediately understood how the gate handle worked and solved the problem.

No family dog tried to open the gate. Instead, they just kept looking at their human. Only after he or she urged the dog to try to open the gate, some dogs did, but other dogs continued to look at their humans and seemed to want their help. The Hungarian team came to the following conclusion:

“It showed that dogs can solve problems like wolves do, but they also have a special desire to work with their owners to follow up on a command. They want to work with us.”

Although I do not want to dispute the results of Csányi, you can interpret the results in a less positive way. Namely, what the dogs showed is not so much teamwork, but what Martin Seligman observed in the 1970s, namely “Learned Helplessness”. The dogs have quickly learned to give up helplessly and to look at their human for help.

In most areas of intelligence, the dog loses to it’s wild predecessor. Dogs perform very poorly when they have to work together, according to research by Sarah Marshall-Pescini. At the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, both dogs and wolves live in packs in similar conditions. In pairs of either dogs or wolves, more than 400 tests were carried out per species in which they had to cooperate. The dogs only managed to solve the test twice by working together. And the wolves? They they managed to solve it over a hundred times!

Wolves working together at the Wolf Science Center

Research by Michelle Lampe shows that wolves can even make causal connections where dogs cannot. Working together, making connections and solving problems are all necessary qualities for survival in nature, could it be that dogs lost some of their intelligence due to domestication? And, is there absolutely nothing in which dogs are better?

One of the dogs at The Wolf Science Center

Understanding cues

A second study by Csányi and his team showed that dogs pay close attention to what people are pointing at or looking at — something even chimpanzees can’t do as well as dogs. Unlike humans and the chimpanzee, the dog has no fingers to point with, so it’s pretty awesome that a dog understands the idea of ​​pointing. No other animal has developed that ability as well as dogs. Although it has also been shown that wolves can learn it quickly. The difference being that it comes natural to dogs.

It has a downside too, because dogs follow their human’s instructions so well that when even with the evidence in front of their eyes they make the wrong choice if their human deliberately gives the wrong instruction. In one test, a researcher placed a ball in container A. Each time, making eye contact with the dog and explaining that he was hiding the ball in container A. Then the dog had to retrieve the ball which of course was indeed in container A.

In the next phase, while the dog watched, his human moved the ball from container A to container B. However, instead of pointing to container B, he continued to point to container A. Where was the dog looking for the ball now? Still in container A. The dog found the instructions from his human more important than what he saw happening before his own eyes.

I repeated this test with Jura, the most independent and intelligent dog of the my little dog pack, and I expected that she would look in container B. But she really does follow my command to search in A. However in her defense, immediately afterwards she opened container B. As if to say: “I know it’s in container B, but you instructed me to check out container A, so I did that first!”. Still though, I did expect she would ignore my instructions and go to container B first.

Me and my own dog doing tracking on difficult terrain


Dogs seem to be better at learning our language. Dogs can learn words in a manner similar to that of a human. Other intelligent animals such as bonobos and dolphins can also interact with symbols. But there is evidence that dogs have a strategy that uses the principle of exclusion. Something that researchers Brian Hare and John Pilley on different occasions have shown

Dogs know that objects can have a name / sound, and when a new object is introduced with a sound for which they have no name yet, they infer that the new sound must apply to this new object. After all, they already know the other objects and the sounds that go with them, so the new sound must belong to the new object. This is learning by exclusion.

The border collie Chaser knew more than 1000 different toys by name. Chaser also understood that a word, for example ‘Frisbee’ could mean a lot of different Frisbees with different colors and sizes. At the same time, she understood that a single object could be identified by several words. For example, ‘father’, ‘daddy’ and ‘Hank’ could refer to the same person.

Researcher Brian Hare showed that some dogs even understand the principle of iconicity. You can show them a two-dimensional image of something and they will get the object in the image. Maybe your dog isn’t an Einstein but a linguistic genius like Hemingway or Austen.

John Pilley and Chaser


In general, dogs are indeed a lot less intelligent than wolves. But they are not stupid wolves, which would suggest that they would score worse in all areas. The reality is that in a most areas of intelligence such as working together and solving problems, dogs perform much worse than wolves. In some areas they perform just as well or even a little bit better. So it would be wrong to say a dog is a dumbed down version of a wolf.

Dogs live in a human world and have developed specific qualities to function well here. Also life for a dog is just a lot easier, and a stupid decision probably has far less consequences than in the wild. Working together for example isn’t necessary to be sure of your next meal.

Wolves’ brains are not only bigger, to be better at solving problems. The difference in brain size mainly affects the sensory areas, especially sight, hearing and sense of smell. In other words, dogs don’t see, smell or hear as well as wolves do. Living in a human world, there is no need to keep these senses optimal.

By the way, our own brains have also gotten smaller by around 10% since agriculture became the most important source of our food. One of the consequences is that we no longer scan the horizon in search of food, we’ve become myopic. This have become worse over the last decades because we spend more and more time at home.

Many dogs, with their sharp hearing and sense of smell, already have many problems to function in our rapidly growing world. Finnish research has also shown that dogs in urban areas have more behavioral and anxiety problems than dogs in rural areas. A wolf could not function at all in a human world. Their larger brain, which processes much more sensory information, would be in a constant state of alarm. So maybe, being a little bit dumbed down is part of evolution.

One of my other dogs, Mahru. She’s has a pretty sharp mind and doesn’t like crowded human places.

Articles mentioned

Vilmos Csányi — Use of experimenter-given cues in dogs

Michelle Lampe — The effects of domestication and ontogeny on cognition in dogs and wolves | Scientific Reports

Sarah Marshall-Pescini — Integrating social ecology in explanations of wolf–dog behavioral differences — ScienceDirect

Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words by John W. Pilley

[Urban dogs are more fearful than their cousins from the country: Great variance between breeds — ScienceDaily](

Ultrarunner, holder of multiple personal records, servant to dogs, holder of a BA in Philosophy of Science, liker of trees, writer of words.

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