By Dr. Becker
A new study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology suggests that the ability of humans to domesticate dogs may have its origins in the innate social skills of wolves.1
Most theories of dog domestication hold that dogs have been selected for enhanced communication and interactions with humans, including learning socially from human demonstrators. But to what extent these skills are newly acquired and to what extent they originate from wolf–wolf interactions is unclear.
Austrian Study Uncovers Fascinating Insights Into Wolf Pup Behavior
Researchers in Austria studied 11 hand-raised North American gray wolf puppies and 14 mixed breed dog puppies between the ages of five and seven months. All the pups were born in captivity and hand-raised in packs at the Wolf Science Center in Ernstbrunn, Austria.
The researchers observed that both the dog and wolf pups were most likely to find a hidden food treat in a meadow if they were allowed to watch while either a human or a specially trained dog hid the treat. Apparently, the visual input provided by the hiding behavior helped both the dogs and the wolves find the treats more often than if they were left to locate the food using only their noses. Interestingly, the pups paid such close attention to the hiding activity that they rarely tried to search for the treat if the person only pretended to hide it!
Equally fascinating was that the wolf pups were less apt to search for food left by the dog “hiders.” In fact, they paid less attention in general to the dog hiders than the humans, regardless of whether a food treat was involved. This might be explained by the fact that the wolf pups were already accustomed to getting food rewards from humans, but not from pet dogs. It could also be that because the dog hiders were all older than the wolf pups, and therefore in positions of dominance, the wolf pups might not have wanted to try to “steal” food from the dogs.
However, the researchers also theorized that the wolves were such keen observers that they noticed the dogs didn’t enjoy holding the food treats (day old dead chickens) in their mouths and sometimes spit them out. The wolf pups may have discerned the treats were undesirable and decided not to search for them.
If that’s the case, then it could be wolves are actually more sensitive to dog-specific social cues than even the dogs themselves. Wolves must pay close attention to even the subtlest behavioral cues of their pack mates in a way that domestic dogs do not. Wolves depend on coordinated cooperative hunting efforts to bring down large prey. Obviously, pet dogs have no need for those skills, since they depend only on the effort of their owners to fill their bowl with food twice a day!
Wolves Are Just as Capable of Learning from Humans as Dogs Are
In the right environment, wolves can learn from humans just as well as pet dogs can. The conclusion to be drawn from this is that domestication probably simply focused previously existing skills rather than create entirely new ones. According to Scientific American:
“It also means that dogs’ ability to accept humans as social partners is not a unique outcome of domestication, since socialized wolves are capable of doing the same. Perhaps domestication simply makes the process a bit easier.”
This research also suggests that as dogs assimilated into human society, they may have simultaneously reduced their sensitivity to the social and emotional cues of their own kind.