​Who Has Better Impulse Control: Wolves or Dogs?

Either way they're all very good dogs.

Feb 26 2015, 3:00pm

​Image: ​Chris Smith Ronnie Shumate

As dogs became our best friends, they got floppier ears, piebald coats, and curly tails, but researchers have been unsure if they also got better impulse control.

Wolves rely on working together as a pack to hunt, eat, and survive, but dogs work, hunt and rely on people, learning behavior like pointing through the promise of delayed rewards. It seems like a toss up and a new study published in PLOS One can't conclude either way—in one test, the wolves beat the dogs, and in the other, the dogs beat the wolves. And one close relative blew them both away.

The team of Austrian researchers was testing for what's known as "inhibitory controls," which they define as "blocking an impulsive or prepotent response in favor of a more appropriate alternative." Depending on the situation, that first canine impulse could be the wrong one.

But given that dogs have thousands of years of working alongside humans, how does a human researcher set up a fair test? Fortunately, they were in Austria, home of the Wolf Science Center, a center designed to research behavior and cognition of both wolf and dog.

Both species are "raised and kept in the same way, establishing long-term close bonds with the trainers who care and work with the animals on a daily basis," according to the study. The WSC's website explains that wolves are brought to the center at just 10 days old, and are raised around humans and eventually integrated into wolf packs. It seems like the world's coolest place to work, although, sadly, it isn't hiring.

Same test, different study.

Anyway, in the first experiment, the canines watched as a reward—in this case a one-day-old dead chick—was placed on the other side of a fence, and doors in the fence were either open to let the subject head straight in for a meal, or closed so the subject had to detour around the fence in order to get to delicious dead chick. The wolves detoured way better, while dogs sometimes took a while to tear themselves away from the tantalizingly close food, and go around the fence to eat it.

Point, Team Wolf.

But dogs made a comeback in round two, the cylinder task.

Very good dog. Image: PLOS One

Another dead chick was placed in the middle of a big tube that was open on both ends. Both dogs and wolves got a few test runs with an opaque, brown tube, but in the time trial, the tube was clear. Dogs had no trouble zipping around to the side of the cylinder and chowing down, while wolves tended to hit the cylinder's clear sides with their snouts and paws first, before finding the open side.

This might seem like more of a puzzle than a test of impulse control, but as the researchers explained, "since test trials were identical to the training trials except that the opaque cylinder was replaced with the transparent cylinder in the former trials, the animals could see the food through the cylinder, introducing a competition between the correct motor response (established during the training trials) and visual input (which could lead the animal to approach the food directly, bumping into the front of the cylinder)." The dogs were able to not trust their eyes.

Point, Team Dog. All knotted up at one apiece.

The researchers had to admit that intraspecies and interspecies impulse control both seem to have their advantages. In other studies, wolves figured out how to open boxes for food more easily than dogs, leading the researchers to conclude that wolves probably had the edge.

One interesting factoid, though: other studies found that dingoes doing the first test detoured way faster than either group. Despite what you may have heard, by canine patience standards, the dingo is a zen master.