Wolf Studies Expose the Social ‘Smarts’ of Domesticated Dogs

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

social cognition in the domestic dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • A recent study at Duke University provides evidence that even wolf pups hand-raised by humans from birth don’t “get” us like domesticated dogs do
  • In one test, the dog pups excelled at, and all the wolf pups failed at following human gestures to find treats
  • Unlike dog puppies, even hand-raised wolf puppies don’t look to humans to help them solve problems
  • The study authors believe these results further confirm that the social genius of dogs is a product of domestication

A recent Duke University study shows that you can hand raise a wolf puppy, snuggle and cuddle him often, and otherwise manage him exactly as you would a domesticated pup, but little Wolfie will never quite “get” you like your dog does,1 more proof that dogs are not wolves (despite how much DNA they share).

When you point and say, “go get your ball,” your dog will run right to it. Wolfie? Not so much. The ability to comprehend human gestures may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s actually a complex cognitive skill that is rare among animals. Chimpanzees, our closest relative, can’t do it.

After thousands of years of domestication, it seems dogs have developed some of the same cognitive abilities as human babies. They’ve evolved to possess something called “theory of mind” mental skills that give them the ability to infer what humans think and feel in certain situations.

Dog Pups Win Big in the ‘Find the Treat’ Test

The study involved 44 dog and 37 wolf puppies between 5 and 18 weeks of age. The wolf pups were housed at the Wildlife Science Center in Minnesota and were genetically tested to ensure they weren’t wolf-dog hybrids. They were raised with lots of human interaction: they were hand-fed, slept in their caretakers’ beds at night, and received round-the-clock human attention from just days after birth.

In contrast, the dog puppies, who were from Canine Companions for Independence, lived with their mother and littermates and had less human contact.

In one test, a treat was hidden in one of two bowls, and each dog or wolf pup was given a clue by a researcher to help them find the food. Clues included pointing and gazing in the direction the treat was hidden and placing a small wooden block beside the right bowl — a gesture the puppies had never seen before — to indicate where the treat was hidden. According to a Duke Today news release:

“The results were striking. Even with no specific training, dog puppies as young as eight weeks old understood where to go, and were twice as likely to get it right as wolf puppies the same age who had spent far more time around people.

Seventeen out of 31 dog puppies consistently went to the right bowl. In contrast, none out of 26 human-reared wolf pups did better than a random guess. Control trials showed the puppies weren't simply sniffing out the food.

Even more impressive, many of the dog puppies got it right on their first trial. Absolutely no training necessary. They just get it.”2

Wolf Pups Lack People-Reading Skills, Fear Strangers

It’s important to note that the study wasn’t about which species is “smarter,” and in fact, all the pups performed equally in tests of other cognitive abilities such as memory and motor impulse control. The difference became obvious only in the realm of people-reading skills.

"There's lots of different ways to be smart," said doctoral student and lead study author Hannah Salomons. "Animals evolve cognition in a way that will help them succeed in whatever environment they're living in."

Other tests showed that the dog pups were also 30 times more likely than wolf pups to approach a stranger.

"With the dog puppies we worked with, if you walk into their enclosure they gather around and want to climb on you and lick your face, whereas most of the wolf puppies run to the corner and hide," Salomons said.

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Domestication Is Responsible for the ‘Social Genius’ of Dogs

In a test in which treats were placed inside a sealed container so the puppies couldn’t access them, the wolf pups mostly tried to solve the problem on their own, while the dog puppies spent more time asking for help from nearby humans through direct eye contact, as if to say, “I’m stuck, can you fix this?”

Brian Hare, senior study author and professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke believes the research provides some of the strongest evidence to date to support the “domestication hypothesis.” From the news release:

“Somewhere between 12,000 and 40,000 years ago, long before dogs learned to fetch, they shared an ancestor with wolves. How such feared and loathed predators transformed into man's best friend is still a bit of a mystery.

But one theory is that, when humans and wolves first met, only the friendliest wolves would have been tolerated and gotten close enough to scavenge on the human's leftovers instead of running away. Whereas the shyer, surlier wolves might go hungry, the friendlier ones would survive and pass on the genes that made them less fearful or aggressive toward humans.

The theory is that this continued generation after generation, until the wolf's descendants became masters at gauging the intentions of people they interact with by deciphering their gestures and social cues.”

According to Hare, "This study really solidifies the evidence that the social genius of dogs is a product of domestication.” He believes it’s this ability that makes dogs born prepared to be great service animals. Like human babies, dog puppies intuitively understand that when humans point, they’re trying to communicate something. Wolf puppies don’t possess this understanding.

"We think it indicates a really important element of social cognition, which is that others are trying to help you," Hare said.

And according to Salomons, "Dogs are born with this innate ability to understand that we're communicating with them and we're trying to cooperate with them.”