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Wolves found to be more prosocial than dogs

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

wolf behavior

Story at-a-glance -

  • A study comparing dogs with wolves, their closest relatives, found that wolves, not dogs, are more prosocial, which means more prone to share, help or comfort
  • Researchers at the Wolf Science Center in Vienna found that when raised by humans, wolves can be trained as effectively as dogs to work with humans to solve cooperative tasks
  • Twelve mixed-breed pack dogs and 15 gray wolves, all raised by humans, were observed coordinating their behavior to the humans they worked with; chosen to be the ones with whom they had the best rapport
  • Both the wolves and dogs were trained to use their noses to press symbols on a touchscreen, one of which denoted “giving,” and food would be delivered to an adjacent enclosure; or the “control” symbol, which meant no food reward
  • Using a touchscreen, wolves picked the “giving” symbol to provide food rewards to members of their own pack “significantly” more often than when a fellow pack member was nearby but wouldn’t be receiving the reward

“Prosocial” may be a new term in your personal thesaurus, but it comes with positive vibes: It means behaving with the intent of benefitting others. Examples include helping, sharing and comforting, according to a collaborative study in 2014 on cognitive and emotional development.1

It’s one thing to try to train people, particularly children, to voluntarily sharpen their prosocial skills, but imagine observing animals naturally exhibiting prosocial behaviors, such as sharing their food. That’s what a group of researchers found in a study comparing dogs with wolves. Between wolves — the closest relatives to dogs and undeniably the more “wild” of the two — dogs were found to be less prosocial than their undomesticated cousins.

Working with colleagues at the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, researcher Rachel Dale and animal behaviorist Friederike Range, Ph.D., worked from the premise that domesticated dogs would demonstrate more prosocial tendencies than wolves on an identical task. According to Science Daily, two behaviors were predicted for dogs in relation to wolves:

“Some scientists hypothesize that dog domestication has selected [adapted] for cooperative tendencies, suggesting that dogs should be more prosocial than their closest living relatives: wolves. Competing hypotheses hold that prosocial behaviors observed in pet dogs arose from ancestral traits, and since wolves rely heavily on cooperation, they should be more prosocial than dogs.”2

In other words, the researchers showed that wolves raised by humans can be trained as effectively as dogs to work with humans to solve cooperative tasks.3 RealClearScience4 says results of the study suggest there was more than domestication at play for dogs to be as cooperative as they generally are with humans.

Wolves compared to dogs, both raised by humans

Twelve mixed-breed pack dogs and 15 gray wolves, all raised at the Wolf Science Center5 in Vienna, worked with the trainers with whom they had the most “cooperative” relationship or rapport. Meanwhile they were tested in a variety of conditions using experiments like the cooperative loose-string paradigm.6

The exercise involved a human and either a dog or a wolf pulling on opposite sides of the same rope or string. When both pulled at the same time, the platform they stood on shifted toward food that had been out of reach when the experiment began. If only one side pulled, the rope would come apart and the exercise would be deemed a failure. RealClearScience made some notable observations:7

  • Both wolves used to being around humans and the dogs examined in the study had similar abilities when working with their human partner; both were adept at solving the string puzzle. However, the wolves seemed to acclimate more quickly to the task compared to dogs when engaging the puzzle the first time.
  • During the experiments, dogs were seen observing the nonverbal cues of their humans twice as often as the wolves did.
  • When the human-animal teams were given the task of solving two puzzles in a row, the wolves moved into the next sequence without looking for approval from their human. In contrast, the dogs waited for their humans to make the first move almost consistently.

Most of the researchers assumed domesticated dogs would more readily cooperate with humans and have more prosocial behavior. The study noted that “reliance on cooperation is a driving force for prosocial attitudes.”8 Previous studies had shown that pet dogs were more prosocial with people they were familiar with, compared to strangers, especially when there was a food reward involved.

The researchers commented that “Placing it into a broader context, the dogs’ behaviors towards their human cooperating partners, when compared to that of wolves, appear to be more deferential.”9 According to the study, published in PloS One:

“Since dogs form social bonds with group members, but defend their territory against dogs of other neighboring groups, group membership could explain the contrasting behavior to familiar and stranger partners. Alternatively, dogs might just base their prosocial behavior on familiarity (knowing the other individual or not) rather than group membership.”10

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The results: Wolves are more prosocial than dogs

The animals were all trained to use their noses to press one of two symbols on a touchscreen: One denoted “giving,” after which food would be delivered to an adjacent enclosure (and they did so whether an animal of their same species was waiting in the enclosure or not). The second was the “control” symbol, which meant no food reward for either of them.

The researchers conjectured that if dogs and wolves belonged in the same pack, as opposed to simply having some familiarity to an animal from another pack, they would more readily make food available for them. The scientists took distractions, stress and simple lack of motivation into account for the animals during the trials.

Additionally, different conditions were tested to contrast the dogs’ and wolves’ reactions. For instance, during the training and control sessions, rewards weren’t always made available, but motivation sessions were included in between each experiment to make sure their incentives were similar before they approached the next trial.

Throughout multiple trials that took place, the researchers found that the wolves chose to provide food to the adjacent enclosure “significantly” more often when a member of their own pack was inside it, in comparison with when a member of their pack was nearby, but would not be receiving a food reward. However:

“In contrast, the dogs delivered no more food to the adjacent enclosure when it was occupied by a pack member than when the pack member was merely nearby. These findings suggest that wolves are more prosocial than dogs raised in similar pack conditions, supporting hypotheses that prosocial behaviors seen in pet dogs can be traced to ancestral traits.”11

The scientists stressed that prosocial experiments with dogs and wolves can have widely varying results depending on several factors, including small variations in the methods used, so caution is advised. Dale added a note on the idea of domestication in relation to prosocial behavior:

“This study shows that domestication did not necessarily make dogs more prosocial. Rather, it seems that tolerance and generosity towards group members help to produce high levels of cooperation, as seen in wolves.”12

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