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Less is Sometimes More
Dogs make quick decisions similar to humans and other primates

People always say, 'less is more,' and according to a new study, that mantra is sometimes true for canines.

A study at the University of Kentucky looked at a group of dogs that willingly ate both cheese and baby carrots, but showed a preference for the cheese (like most pups I know!). When given a choice between one slice of cheese or the cheese together with a piece of carrot, nine out of ten dogs chose the cheese alone. Thus sometimes less is more.

Most people would expect a hungry dog to choose the option for a greater quantity of food, but apparently this is a unique trait that has only previously been shown in humans and monkeys--a qualitative versus quantitative decision. Researchers believe that the dogs averaged the quality of the cheese plus carrot, rather than sum up the quantity, something associated with quick decision making that humans and other primates do. For example people will typically place a greater value on a set of six baseball cards in perfect condition than the same set of perfect cards together with three more cards in fair condition. Similarly, in a study where monkeys were given the choice of one grape or one grape plus a cucumber slice, they overwhelmingly preferred the one grape.

Researchers believe this happens because it's faster and easier to judge the average quality than the overall quantity of alternatives. They figure that a dog developed this behavior because in the wild they would need to make rapid decisions about food in order to stay alive (although you could make this argument for almost any wild animal).

As in humans, motivation may also play a role. The team noted that one dog did choose the cheese and carrot combination. Interestingly, this outlier dog was a rescue and had a history of having to fend for himself. So it would make sense that he would go for the larger amount of food.

Kristina Pattison, one of the researchers, believes that the study shows the behavior can be found in all socially organized carnivores, like wolves. The team is hoping to further the research by studying the effect in less socially organized species, like rats, and non-mammalian species, such as birds.

This study is really interesting (and it's always cool to see the similarities we have with our pups), but I tried the experiment with my crew and they just seemed to go with whatever pile of food they happened to look at first. Obviously my trial was not scientific in the least, but I think they're so excited I'm putting food on the floor that they aren't really thinking about the contents.

What would your crew do?

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

Photo by demond handy/flickr.

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