Communication With Humans: Domesticated Dogs vs. Wolves

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Numerous studies suggest that the main differences between domesticated dogs and wolves are related to their communication with humans. As a result of evolution, dogs are used to relying on humans and therefore developed a better understanding of the human behavior and interpretation of the social clues. On the other hand, most studies have shown the degradation of domesticated dogs’ cognitive skills and reduced persistence at solving problems in comparison to wild wolves.

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Several studies have shown that when presented with a challenging task, domesticated dogs tend to give up faster than wolves and rely on human help to solve it instead. However, these experiments failed to determine whether dogs’ behavior was a result of an evolutionary adaptation or a general lack of persistence in their approach. Udell’s (2015) research aims to identify how human presence and engagement affects the problem-solving approach and efficiency for dogs and wolves. In the experiment, ten pet dogs, ten shelter dogs, and ten wolves were challenged with a task to open a box with a sausage inside. The study was divided into three phases; in the first two, the animals had to act on their own with or without a human present, respectively. In the third phase, the animals that failed the first two were encouraged by a human to solve the puzzle.

All of the wolves managed to open the box within the first two phases, while only one pet dog and one shelter dog succeeded at a time. The researchers noted that dogs gazed at the experimenter most of the time. Wolves, on the contrary, were actively trying to solve the puzzle and practically ignored the human. In the absence of a human, the results were similar with both pet and shelter dogs showing less persistence again. However, a total of five dogs succeeded in the third phase of the experiment while being encouraged continuously by a human. Most importantly, the researchers noted that nearly all the dogs spend much more time trying to open the box compared to the first two phases.

The results of the experiment can lead to two independent conclusions. As wolves have to face different challenges throughout their lives quite often, their ability to solve problems independently is superior to that of the domesticated dogs. Their persistence is a natural trait necessary to survive in the wild, where the hunting success rate for wolves is relatively low. Meanwhile, owners supply their pet dogs with food regularly, thus reducing the importance of survival skills. As humans have a significant impact on the dogs’ lives, the latter develop a better understanding of social cues. This can lead to a different conclusion on the results of the experiment. Udell (2015) states that dogs are quite reluctant to interact with forbidden objects when humans are around. The absence of cues in the first two phases of the experiment might make pet dogs behave more cautiously, as they have to evaluate potential human-related consequences. Increased enthusiasm among all dogs in the third phase supports this conclusion.


The experiment has proven that human presence has little or no influence on the outcome of the challenge for wolves. Meanwhile, dogs have demonstrated slightly better efficiency and significantly improved persistence when encouraged by a human. It is important to note the difference between the phases with active and passive human presence. While passive human presence has not benefited dogs’ problem-solving approach, active encouragement has made a huge difference. Therefore, this study confirms that dogs’ reliance on humans and their improved ability to read social cues is a result of an evolutionary adaptation.


Udell, M. A. R. (2015). Biology Letters, 11(9). Web.

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