Are Wolves More Cooperative Than Dogs?

wolves

Story at-a-glance -

  • It’s a long-held belief that dogs are tamer than their wild wolf relatives; it’s this tameness that supposedly played a key role in their domestication and status as “man’s best friend”
  • Wolves, unlike free-ranging dogs, actually rely heavily on cooperation for a variety of tasks, including hunting, raising their pups and defending territories
  • In a cooperation test, dogs successfully cooperated only two out of 472 tries while wolves cooperated 100 times out of 416 attempts — a far better cooperation rate than dogs
  • The findings raise major questions about the so-called “domestication effect,” which posits that dogs developed greater cooperation skills, which is why they were eventually woven so closely into human society

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Wolves may be more socially cooperative and tolerant than many give them credit for — even surpassing our cuddly canine companions — dogs — in a recent test of cooperation. The revealing findings came from the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, Austria, where scientists are hand-raising wolves and dogs in order to discover more about what makes them unique and how they relate to humans.

It’s a long-held belief that dogs are tamer than their wild wolf relatives. It’s this tameness that supposedly played a key role in their domestication and status as “man’s best friend.” But what if this is all a myth? Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers noted that wolves actually rely heavily on cooperation for a variety of tasks, including hunting, raising their pups and defending territories.1 Dogs? Not so much.

So researchers wanted to find out what would happen when wolves and dogs were presented with a task that required cooperation. Would the “big bad wolves” live up to their ferocious image and fail while dogs, with their supposedly more timid temperaments, succeeded? Quite the opposite actually occurred.

Wolves May Cooperate Better Than Dogs

Wolves and dogs raised in the same environment were given a rope-pulling test to gauge their level of cooperation. If the animals pulled the rope together, they received a raw meat reward, but if they preferred to work solo, they received no such treat. When the dogs were up, they successfully cooperated only two out of 472 tries. On the other hand, the wolves cooperated 100 times out of 416 attempts2 — a far better cooperation rate than dogs.

Further, among wolves, partners tended to be more successful when they were a similar rank in their pack and had a close social bond. “Whereas wolves coordinated their actions so as to simultaneously pull the rope ends, leading to success, dogs pulled the ropes in alternate moments, thereby never succeeding,” the researchers noted.3 It seemed, according to the study, that dogs may have avoided pulling the rope at the same time in order to avoid potential competition and conflict.

“Wolves, in contrast, did not hesitate to manipulate the ropes simultaneously, and once cooperation was initiated, rapidly learned to coordinate in more complex conditions as well,” the researchers said.4 The findings raise major questions about the so-called “domestication effect,” which posits that dogs developed greater cooperation skills, which is why they were eventually woven so closely into human society.

Wolves Live in Highly Social, Tight-Knit Groups

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that wolves came out on top in the cooperation test. While they they’re still viewed as fierce, dangerous predators by many, especially in comparison to dogs, they live in close family groups and rely on teamwork for their very survival. It’s interesting to note that among free-ranging dogs, cooperation is much more rare; both hunting and care of pups is typically carried out alone.5

A moving demonstration of the complex social lives of wolves can be seen in Jim and Jamie Dutcher’s book, “The Hidden Life of Wolves.” While living among a pack of wolves in Idaho for six years, they encountered animals with deep social bonds, rituals for selecting pack leaders and the ability to mourn when a pack member died.

“Wolves possess something beyond their more obvious attributes of beauty, strength and intelligence. These animals, who have been maligned for centuries and despised as the embodiment of all that is cowardly, savage and cruel, clearly care about one another. They show signs of what we believe are nothing less than empathy and compassion,” the Dutchers wrote in a press release.6

It’s crucial that their savage image is shed, as one of the greatest threats to wolves remains humans’ prejudices against them, often propagated by myths and misunderstandings.7

While gray wolves, which were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries, are considered endangered species on most of the continental U.S., in 2011 they were stripped of Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections in Idaho, Montana, and parts of Washington, Oregon and Utah. In Alaska, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, gray wolves are also not listed as endangered, and hunting and trapping are their top cause of death.8

More Questions About How Dogs Emerged From Wolves

Modern dogs share more than 99 percent of their DNA with wolves, but how dogs turned into our family pets while wolves remain wild animals is a subject of great debate.

It’s thought that modern dogs have one common ancestor — the Eurasian grey wolf. At some point in the past, roughly 30,000 or 40,000 years ago, a subspecies of wolf likely began interacting with humans, perhaps as the animals searched for food at human settlements.

Interactions between wolves and people ultimately led to domesticated dogs who are able to recognize and respond to human communication cues and developed into the pets we know and love today. It’s interesting to note that wolves raised by humans become attached to their caregivers,9 although as they got older they were less dependent on their caretakers than dogs.

This makes sense since, by about the age of 4 months, wolves are no longer dependent on their mothers and spend a lot of time on their own. So whereas “wild” wolves can form attachments to humans much like dogs, wild wolves also appear to be more cooperative in the wild than their domesticated counterparts.

It should be noted that the dogs in the featured study were raised with minimal human interference, as were the wolves. In separate research on pet dogs, all of them were able to successfully complete a given cooperation task.10

In the case of pets, it’s likely that training and living in the same household with the other dogs changed the way they interact, as the owners likely discourage the dogs from fighting over food and other resources. As such, dog owners inadvertently may promote cooperation and tolerance in their pets — attributes that may not necessarily occur in non-pet dogs.