Dogs and wolves can remember where people hide food, scientists have found

But wolves and dogs may differ in food-related motivation and persistence, the researchers said.

Nilima Marshall
Wednesday 13 September 2023 19:00 BST
Wolves and dogs appear to remember where people hid food (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Wolves and dogs appear to remember where people hid food (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Dogs and wolves appear to remember where people hide food, suggesting they are capable of a form of social learning known as observational spatial memory, according to scientists.

Observational spatial memory is a skill that involves the ability to remember and mentally map the layout of an environment or scene by simply observing it.

It allows individuals to retain and later recall information about the arrangement of objects, landmarks, or locations in their surroundings.

Aside from humans, birds, aquatic animals like dolphins and sea lions and insects such as bees are known to possess varying degrees of observational spatial memory.

Previous research has suggested that wolves and dogs – who diverged from wolves around 40,000 years ago – may possess observational spatial memory but not much is known about their abilities.

For the study, published in the journal Plos One, researchers in Austria conducted experiments with nine timber wolves and eight mongrel dogs at the Wolf Science Center in Ernsbrunn, Austria.

Each animal was tested on the ability to find four, six, or eight hidden caches of food.

In some instances the dogs and wolves observed the human hiding the food, in others, they had to locate the cache that was already hidden.

The first five food caches were found more quickly by both dogs and wolves when they saw the food being hidden, as compared to not seeing where the food was concealed.

This suggests that the animals did not just use scent in order to find the food, the researchers said, providing further support to the hypothesis that both wolves and dogs are capable of observational spatial memory.

The team also found that wolves outperformed the dogs in finding the caches – whether or not they saw the food being hidden.

Ultimately, your dog will remember where you 'hid' those tasty snacks, especially if they are accessible, so don't be surprised to find them gone

Dr Jacqueline Boyd

The researchers believe this may be because of a stronger “persistency and food-related motivation” in wolves.

Commenting on the research, Dr Jacqueline Boyd, an animal scientist in Nottingham Trent University’s School of animal, rural and environmental sciences, who was not involved in the study, said said the work “adds additional knowledge to our understanding of how canids experience and manipulate the world around them”.

She said: “Anyone who lives with a dog will likely have experienced their dog apparently mimicking them or demonstrating a level of social learning through collaboration.

“Our dogs are also quite adept at ‘asking for help’ when experiencing a challenge – think of your dog ‘telling’ you their ball has got stuck under the bookcase and seeking your assistance to recover it!”

Dr Boyd said the findings suggest that for domestic dogs, observational spatial memory “is possibly a result of convergent evolution, where dogs and humans have evolved alongside each other for thousands of years and developed shared capabilities”.

She added: “Being able to find cached food stores will also be a potential survival advantage for wolves – if you can exploit the work of others and gain resources with minimal energetic output, then there is a distinct survival advantage there.

“So what does this mean for our domestic dogs?

“Ultimately, your dog will remember where you ‘hid’ those tasty snacks, especially if they are accessible, so don’t be surprised to find them gone.”

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