Do dogs have better self-control than wolves?

Marshall-Pescini, S./ Virányi, Z./ Range, F.(2015): The effect of domestication on inhibitory control: wolves and dogs compared. Plos One. 2015; 10(2):e0118469

Project Cognitive tools and emotional context in the development of canine cooperation
Authors Sarah Marshall-Pescini, Zsófia Virányi & Friederike Range
Year of publication 2015
Journal Plos One

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A number of theories on domestication suggest that in the course of our time with them, dogs may have evolved a better capacity for self-control, for example as a result of a change in their underlying temperament (e.g. less aggression and fear).

In the study we just published, we tested this hypothesis by presenting the wolves and dogs at WSC with two tasks previously used to test for self-control.

In one task a cylinder with some food in it, was presented to the animals. The cylinder was initially opaque, and in training trials animals learned they had to insert their snouts from the side to get the food (see photo). Then in test trials the cylinder was transparent so animals could see the food inside. Self control is seen if the animals continue to insert their snout from the side without first trying to get the food directly from the top of the box. They have to inhibit the direct reaching of the food and remember to approach the task from the side. IN this test dogs outperformed wolves, making far fewer mistakes.

A second task was presented. This is the classic fence detour task, where a V shaped fence with some nice food in the inner corner of the fence, is presented to the animals. Again to obtain the food they need to avoid the direct route, and move away from the food to go around the V and obtain their target.

In this task we found the exact opposite results!! Wolves outperformed dogs in the speed in which they went around the fence and they spent less time directly in front of food trying to get at it from the wrong side.

Considering the opposite results one possibility is that these tasks don’t just measure self-control, but require other skills as well. Wolves for example may be better at ‘spatial cognition’ (i.e. the ability to understand the relationship amongst objects in space).

We will soon be carrying out more studies to understand if wolves and dogs really have a different capacity for self-control.