Greyhounds have been a part of my life for more than two decades. In fact, in 2019, when my husband and I got the call inviting us to visit the local kennel to adopt what would be our 10th greyhound over a span of 26 years, we found our new “fur baby” within 30 minutes. We knew that Luna—our new name for an ex-racer who was registered with the National Greyhound Association as “Gasoline”—was the dog for us when after a brief, get-acquainted walk, she looked up, stared deeply into our eyes and watched every micromovement that we made. How could we resist such intense interest and scrutiny?
If you’ve ever lived with a dog, you probably know the feeling. Your dog closely watches you, which soon turns into understanding. Ask your dog to “go find your ball [or insert the name of the toy of your choice],” and she’ll scamper away right to it.
This knack for understanding human gestures and words may seem unremarkable, but it’s actually a complex cognitive ability that is rare in the animal kingdom. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, can’t do it.
And it turns out that dogs’ closest living relatives, gray wolves, can’t manage it, either.
Getting it right and “getting us”
Somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago, long before dogs learned to fetch, they shared an ancestor with gray wolves. How such feared predators transformed into our best friends is still a bit of a mystery. But one theory is that when humans and wolves first met, only the friendliest of the canines would have been tolerated and allowed to approach close enough to scavenge on human leftovers. The shyer, surlier wolves may have gone hungry, while the friendlier ones found a way to get into our good graces and passed on the genes that made them less aggressive or fearful toward humans.
The theory is that this continued generation after generation, until the wolf’s descendants became masters at gauging the intentions of people they interacted with by deciphering their gestures and social cues. These abilities are known as “theory of mind abilities,” or mental skills allowing them to infer what humans are feeling and thinking in some situations. And, scientists tell us, after some 15,000 years of domestication, dogs have some of the same cognitive abilities as human babies.
In a Duke University-led study published on July 12, 2021, in the science journal Current Biology, researchers compared 44 dog and 37 wolf puppies who were between five and 18 weeks old. At the Wildlife Science Center in Minnesota, wolf puppies were first genetically tested to make sure they were not dog/wolf hybrids. The wolf puppies were then raised with plenty of human interaction. They were fed by hand, slept in their caretakers’ beds each night and received nearly round-the-clock human supervision from just days after birth. In contrast, the dog puppies from Canine Companions for Independence lived with their mother and littermates and had less human contact.
Then, the canines were tested. In one test, the researchers hid a treat in one of two bowls, then gave each dog or wolf puppy a clue to help them find the food. In some trials, the researchers pointed and gazed in the direction the food was hidden. In others, they placed a small wooden block beside the right spot—a gesture the puppies had never seen before—to show them where the treat was stashed away.
The results were striking. Even with no specific training, dog puppies as young as eight weeks old understood where to go and were twice as likely to get it right as wolf puppies the same age who had spent far more time around people. Seventeen out of 31 dog puppies consistently went to the right bowl. In contrast, none out of 26 human-reared wolf pups did better than a random guess. And control trials showed that the puppies weren’t simply sniffing out the food.
Even more impressive to my mind is that many of the dog puppies got it right the first time they tried. Absolutely no training was necessary.
It seems as if dogs just get us.
Reading people and retrieving provisions
The dog puppies and wolf puppies proved equally adept in tests of other cognitive abilities, such as memory or motor impulse control, which involved making a detour around transparent obstacles to get food. So, the researchers say, it’s not about which species is “smarter.” It was only when it came to the puppies’ people-reading skills that the differences became clear.
Other tests showed that dog puppies were also 30 times more likely than wolf pups to approach a stranger. If the scientists walked into the dog enclosure, the puppies gathered around and wanted to climb on the people and lick their faces, whereas most of the wolf puppies ran to a corner and hid.
And when presented with food inside a container that was sealed so they couldn’t retrieve it, the wolf pups generally tried to solve the problem on their own, whereas the dog puppies spent more time turning to people for help, looking them in the eye—much as my greyhound Luna does—as if to say: “I’m stuck; can you fix this?”
Logic and Canis lupus
This study doesn’t mean that dogs are smarter than wolves. In fact, on some tests of logic, wolves come out on top.
In some experiments conducted in 2009, dogs followed human cues to perform certain tasks—despite evidence that they could see that suggested a different strategy would be smarter. In contrast, wolves made the more logical choice based on their observations. In fact, dogs’ responses were like those of human infants, who also prioritize following the example of adult humans.
During the tests, a researcher would repeatedly place an object in Box A and allow the subjects to find it. When the experimenter then switched and put the object in Box B, human babies and dogs were confused and continued to search for it in the first box. Wolves, however, easily followed the evidence of their eyes and located the object in Box B.
I think these dog/wolf comparisons show that there are a lot of different ways to be smart and that we should appreciate the complex and intertwined relationship that exists between animals and their natural habitats. For example, if you start with the premise that an animal must survive without human presence, then wolves are smarter. But if an animal needs to thrive in an environment dominated by humans, then dogs reign supreme.
In other words, animals evolve cognition in a way that will help them succeed in whatever environment they’re living in; and to save one, we need to protect the other, as well.
Lucky for me, Luna’s loving gazes and sharp-eyed stares are working just fine for both of us in our shared home.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,