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How domestication has dumbed down our dogs

If you've ever gazed into the affectionate but vacant eyes of your dog and wondered what's going on inside his furry little head, here's your answer: not much.

At least not compared to his wild counterparts. Recent research has shown that Australian dingoes, a type of wild dog, vastly outperform domestic dogs on problem-solving tasks.

University of South Australia PhD candidate Bradley Smith set up a classic canine brain-teaser: He put food behind a transparent, V-shaped barrier, so his research subjects had to back up and go around the fence to reach their goal.

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Previous experiments have shown that dogs are completely befuddled by this challenge. "They usually just fixate their attention to the item they can see," Mr. Smith explained. "They will often get frustrated because they cannot get to it, and will bark, dig, jump. They also will look back at their owners for assistance."

Many dogs can't pass the test within one minute, Mr. Smith said. (After which, one hopes, some kindly researcher takes pity on their simple souls and shows them how to get the food.)

Dingoes are whiz kids by comparison, with most figuring out the task in about 10 seconds. Mr. Smith's research on dingoes, published in the July issue of the scientific journal Animal Behaviour, shows just how far domestic dogs have fallen in a particular sort of intelligence compared to their wild cousins. And who's to blame for their dumbing down? Us, their doting owners, of course.

"The need for domestic dogs to solve problems has been relaxed because we do everything for them," said Mr. Smith, whose research focuses on animal intelligence in general and dingoes in particular. "They have changed their problem-solving strategies to include humans! By this I mean that when they cannot figure something out, or want something, they seek help from us."

Of course, seeking help from humans involves a different sort of intelligence. While dingoes and wolves have evolved through natural selection to excel at tasks that help them survive in the wild, such as navigating complex environments and finding ways around obstacles, dogs have evolved through unnatural selection - i.e. breeding - to excel in areas that make them good human companions, such as reading people's facial expressions and gestures.

There are surprisingly few differences between dog breeds (and mutts) when it comes to problem-solving tasks that mimic what dogs would find in the wild, Mr. Smith said. While border collies may be tops at responding to human cues, apparently they're just as ill-suited to life in the wild as golden retrievers and cocker spaniels.

Domestication is the telling factor, not breed, Mr. Smith said.

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"I don't ever say that dogs are dumb," Mr. Smith clarified. "Dogs are amazing at understanding and communicating with us. … Sometimes I think dogs are perfect human manipulators and get exactly what they want from us."

Not every species gets dumbed down by domestication. Guinea pigs are one notable exception - a study published in the March issue of the journal Frontiers in Zoology showed that while domestic guinea pigs' brains are 13 per cent smaller than that of their wild counterparts, they performed better at navigating a water maze. Researchers from the University in Munster, Germany, concluded that human intervention and breeding have actually made the little rodents smarter at spatial navigation.

But dogs, it seems, have traded street smarts for social intelligence.

Since humans are responsible for their dogs' lack of problem-solving skills, Mr. Smith suggested we make a bit of an effort to challenge the grey matter they have left.

"I think it is our responsibility to give them opportunities to keep their minds active," he said. "Things like enrichment toys, getting them to earn their food, mixing up feeding times so they are not predictable and letting them interact with other dogs."

So next time your labradoodle gives you a blank stare or your pug gets lost on his way to the backyard, just remember it's not their fault - it's ours. And if you're looking for a smart pet, consider a guinea pig.

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Rebecca Dube blogs about pets at .

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