For canines, considering quantities is an important skill to master when searching for food or determining whether you’re outnumbered against a rival pack, for example. And new research shows that wolves are better at counting than dogs, their domesticated counterparts.
Researchers claim that during the domestication process, dogs lost this ability, making wolves better at discriminating between quantities.
Though this skill can be seen among other social species, like lions, chimpanzees and hyenas, a team from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna chose to focus on dogs and wolves. In 2012, researchers Friederike Range and Zsofia Virányi showed that wolves are capable of counting different food quantities, and wanted to see if dogs demonstrated this same intelligence.
During their latest study, they tested 13 crossbreed dogs raised at the Wolf Science Center in Ernstbrunn, Austria.
Researchers placed pieces of cheese into two opaque tubes - one on the left and another on the right - and tested the dogs to see which could correctly identify the tube with more cheese. By pressing the correct corresponding buzzer, the animals were rewarded with the cheese from that tube.
"We deliberately performed the test in such a way that the dogs never saw the full quantity of food at once. We showed them the pieces sequentially. This allows us to exclude the possibility that the dogs were basing their decisions on simple factors such as overall volume. The dogs had to mentally represent the number of pieces in a tube," first author Range explained in a statement.
After comparing these results with their previous wolf test from two years ago, the researchers concluded that dogs are unable to tell the difference between two or three pieces of cheese versus four.
"Dogs are better able to discriminate the quantities of food when they can see them in their entirety," Range explained. "But this requires no mental representation."
It’s possible, the authors add, that humans can be blamed for the loss of this skill. If dogs can depend on us providing their food rather than having to search for it, then there’s no need to count.