Think Your Dog is Smart? Probably Not as Smart as the Wolf


Is a wolf smarter than your beloved pet dog?
(Photo credit: Elayne/Fotolia)

You probably think your dog is pretty smart. And you may be right. Dogs sometimes seem to be able to read our minds, knowing exactly what we’re thinking and what we’re going to do before it’s even clear to us. However, recent research indicates that their wild ancestor, the wolf, may have an edge in some intelligence competitions.

While the debate may continue to rage over which dog breed, if any, is “the smartest,” all probably would agree that our lovable, loyal canine best friends are, at the very least, far more intelligent and trainable than their wild wolf ancestors. Recent studies, however, are showing that while domestication undoubtedly has made our dogs more amenable to being taught to bark on cue and balance on a rolling ball, it also may have diminished their ability to understand cause-and-effect relationships, one their wild ancestors have to an apparently far greater degree.

The study, which was published in the September 2017 issue of Scientific Reports, was an international effort led by the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, Austria. It focused on groups consisting of relatively equal numbers of canines: socialized wolves, dogs living in packs, and dogs living with human families. Each canine group was given three categories of clues: communicative, behavioral, and causal in order to help them identify a container holding food. For a communication clue, the humans would make direct eye contact with each animal while pointing to the container with the food. For a behavioral clue, the human might sniff at, or point to, the container with food, but not make direct eye contact. The casual clue was that the container with the food would make a noise when moved.

The researchers found that, while both wolves and dogs could understand the communication clues, and neither could pick up on the behavior clues, only the wolves seemed able to understand the causal clues. In other words, only the wolves could understand that a container that “made a noise” might contain food. Or, as biologist Michelle Lampe of the Radboud University in the Netherlands puts it,  “The results of our study suggest that domestication has affected the causal understanding of our dogs.”

Still, the researchers are quick to point out that this doesn’t mean that wolves are inherently smarter than dogs. The results may simply reflect the fact that wolves are conditioned to be more persistent in their pursuit of their next meal, while domesticated dogs are used to being fed by humans. However, structuring the study to focus on the three types of clues, and the fact that both wolves and dogs responded well to communication clues, does suggest that the ability to communicate probably played a large role in human ability to domesticate wolves into dogs. It is precisely the genus’s ability to communicate that may now frustrate the dog’s ability to appreciate better cause and effect.

More to Explore
Your Dog is Probably Dumber than a Wolf, And Here’s Why
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  1. I think that my dog is very intelligent and smarter than wolves

  2. very drawn-out and detailed explanation. thanks for lowering my IQ.

  3. On what basis do you support your statement? Wolves need to know how to outsmart prey. They need to know how to survive in unlivable conditions. Most dogs would’t survive without human help. Wolves have thrived being alpha predators for centuries.

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