Past studies have shown that wild canids (e.g., wolves) perform well on problem-solving tasks because of their social lifestyle and ability to hunt prey as a coordinated group. Domestic dogs, on the other hand, are more skilled at solving problems that require social communication with humans because of domestication and their evolution within human societies. It was unclear how dingoes, a wild canid of Australia would compare to wolves and dogs on similar tasks.
So I conducted a set of three cognitive experiments with sanctuary raised dingoes. Firstly, dingoes were tested for their comprehension of human social cues (e.g. pointing) to locate hidden food on the object-choice paradigm. Dingoes successfully followed most human given cues, outperforming wolves, and performing at comparable levels to dogs. Secondly, the ‘rope task’ was conducted to see if dingoes would look toward a familiar human during an unsolvable task. Like wolves, they did not seek assistance from the human. Thirdly, the ‘detour task’ was conducted which requires the successful detour of a barrier to reach a reward. Dingoes outperformed dogs, with dingoes as young as thirteen weeks able to complete the task with low latency and minimal errors. I also reported an example of higher order behaviour in dingoes in which a dingo moves a table, using it as a ‘tool’to gain the height required to reach an object initially out-of-reach.
Results suggest that wild canids, including dingoes, are more adept at problem solving than domestic dogs. It appears that the dogs’ dependence on humans has reduced their ability to solve problems independently, especially around those to which they are highly attached. Dingoes appear to understand human cues like domestic dogs, yet retain a ‘wolf-like’ ability to think independently. This may reflect their unusual history as free-ranging canids in Australia, with some association with humans over the last 5,000+ years. The results support previous research demonstrating differences between wild and domestic canids, with wild canids being more adept at non-social tasks than domestic dogs. It is possible that different evolutionary pathways of wolves and domestic dogs have led to differences in problem solving abilities.
My thesis was the 2012 joint winner of the Tony Winefield PhD thesis in Psychology Prize-awarded for the best PhD thesis in the School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy.
A digital copy of my thesis can be downloaded from the University of South Australia Library here.