The original picture (minus the labels) was taken from a general biology textbook to illustrate detour problems. We look at that and think, “That’s easy. Run around the post. Silly dog.”
Dogs turn out to be fairly bad at detour problems. Squirrels, I understand, solve such problems in a heartbeat, given that they have evolved to navigate complex three-dimensional environments as they leap from branch to branch on trees. But dogs and squirrels are so distantly related and have such different ecologies that one being better than the other doesn’t tell us all that much informative.
Dogs, for instance, are domesticated animals. Domestication is often thought to make animals... well... stupid. Domestic animals often have smaller brains than their wild counterparts. Further, domestic dogs have social relationships with their owners; dogs tend to look at their owners when they experience problems solving a problem.
Smith and Litchfield pick up on some previous studies that showed wolves tended to do better on detour tasks than domestic dogs. They predicted that the same should be true of another kind of wild dog, Australian dingoes. They also predicted that dingoes would not look at humans when solving the problem.
To make a long story short, the dingos breezed through the tasks, and having humans around provided no particular advantage. Indeed, only one dingo ever even looked at a human when doing the task.
Are dingoes the super-geniuses of the dog world? The authors don’t think that that dingoes are especially bright; they really do think dogs have been made dumber by domestication. They write:
It is unclear whether domestic dogs have lost the ability to work independently to solve problems, or whether they are simply hindered or handicapped by their close relationship with humans.
But before closing out, I have to note that “domestic” doesn’t always mean “dumb” in spatial abilities. A little earlier this year, Lewejohann and colleagues tested domestic guinea pigs in the Morris water maze, a standard learning task for small mammals, against wild cavies, the original stock guinea pigs arose from. The authors here mention in the abstract that guinea pigs have smaller brains than cavies (but provide no reference – grrr).
To once again cut a long story short, the guinea pigs did better at learning the Morris water maze task than the cavies.
Of course, there are differences in these two spatial tasks. Traditionally, the detour task is thought to require some level of insight, while the Morris water maze doesn’t. But the guinea pig study certainly helps to show you can’t assume all the domestic animals are going to do worse than their wild counterparts.
Even if that is the case for dogs and dingoes.
Smith, B., & Litchfield, C. (2010). How well do dingoes, Canis dingo, perform on the detour task? Animal Behaviour. DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2010.04.017
Lewejohann, L., Pickel, T., Sachser, N., & Kaiser, S. (2010). Wild genius - domestic fool? Spatial learning abilities of wild and domestic guinea pigs Frontiers in Zoology: 7 (1). DOI: 10.1186/1742-9994-7-9
Picture by Jared Kelly on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.