Male dogs are bold guessers, and female dogs are quick learners, a new study suggests.
French researchers recently published "the first study reporting differences between females and males in problem-solving abilities in the domestic dog," in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.
The animal behavior experts tasked the 47 dogs - 24 females and 23 males of various breeds - with a relatively simple challenge: Open a wooden box and lift a plastic cover by mouth or paw to get at a bit of chicken meat inside. The scientists gave each dog three cracks at the snack-in-a-box test, with one two-minute-long trial followed by two minute-long trials.
During the first go, a significantly higher proportion of male dogs solved the challenge. But during the second and third trials, the females surpassed the males, with nearly all female pups successfully wrangling open the box by the end of the experiment.
The researchers think that the male dogs' initial success stems from a stronger sense of boldness in an unfamiliar setting. And when female dogs subsequently outperformed the males, the scientists say that indicates variation in the way dogs learn and remember.
It's not the first time scientists have noticed behavioral changes in male and female dogs. Psychologist Stanley Coren writes that female dogs are less likely to act with aggression, "but overall are more independent, stubborn, and territorial than their male counterparts."
These differences may be the result of distinct evolutionary pressures male and female dogs felt in the wild; the French biologists point to the "range size hypothesis," in which male animals with larger home ranges have to keep track of more landmarks (although canine territories aren't that different by sex).
There are a few caveats to this study - it was a small sample size and looked only at a single task. But the scientists say their experiment "provides a significant piece of evidence emphasizing the existence of sex-specific differences in problem-solving skills in the domestic dogs."