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Wolves Can Learn From Humans. What Does That Mean For Dogs?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Where did dogs come from? The question is harder to answer than it seems. The problem with much of the research on domestication is that the focus has been on how dogs and wolves interact with humans. Perhaps that’s understandable, since domestication is in part defined by a species’ incorporation into human culture. But to truly understand the mind of a dog, it’s important to investigate within-species social communication too. Is the dog’s propensity to participate in social interactions with humans borne out of pre-existing within-species social communication skills?

To begin to answer the question, canine cognition researchers Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi from the University of Vienna and Austria’s Wolf Science Center took an old test and gave it a make-over. The set-up is both common and simple: hide a piece of food – or pretend to hide a piece of food – and then see if the dog or wolf can find it. Only in this experiment, each of the fourteen human-raised dog puppies and eleven human-raised wolf pups got two versions of the test. Half the time, the food was hidden by a human demonstrators, and half the time, the food was hidden by an older, trained dog. In each case, the food item was a dead, day-old baby chicken. All the tests occurred while the puppies and wolves were between four and seven months old. The food was pre-hidden in a control condition, to account for the possibility that the wolves and dogs were using their scent-tracking abilities to track down the dead bird.

Both the dogs and the wolves were better off when there was a demonstration, regardless of whether it was a human or canine demonstrator. That is, the visual information provided by the hiding behavior helped both dogs and wolves get their snack more often than when they were forced to sniff out the food on their own. It isn’t that their noses were completely useless, they just found the hidden food both far less often and far more slowly when deprived of a visual aid. Both the dogs and the wolves could accurately distinguish between the the times that the human demonstrator hid food and the times that she only pretended to hide food. They didn’t waste their time looking when the human was trying to trick them. Clever animals.

The key differences emerged when it came to the dog demonstrator. The dog puppies were easily able to distinguish real from pretend hiding, and only looked for food when there really was food to be found. The wolf pups, on the other hand, did not differentiate between the two situations. In fact, they paid less attention to the dog demonstrations overall, regardless of whether there was a potential tasty treat to look for.

The results proved surprising for Range and Virányi, who initially predicted that wolves would benefit from a canine, but not human, demonstration. The wolves were most successful in finding the food in cases when it was hidden by a human! What might explain the unexpected pattern?

One possible explanation is that the wolves were already used to receiving food rewards from humans, since they had all been hand-raised starting from the tenth day after birth. “We train the animals at the Wolf Science Center on a daily basis trying to avoid any conflicts between the animals and the humans,” they write. It is therefore possible “that the wolves were more interested in the humans who usually reward them with food during training sessions. The pet dogs, on the other hand, are just not as interesting since the wolves do not expect them to provide them with food.” In fact, since demonstrator dogs were all older than the wolf pups, they were in positions of relative dominance. So not only were the wolves not accustomed to receiving food rewards from the dogs, but they might have actively avoided trying to steal their food.

It is also possible that the wolves were indeed sensitive to the dog demonstrators’ actions, but that the test was not designed to account for it. It turns out that while they dutifully delivered the food – day-old, dead chickens – to the hiding spots, the dogs actually didn’t like holding a dead chick in their mouths. The dogs “clearly showed their resistance by turning their head or trying to spit the chick out,” according to Range and Virányi. If the wolves picked up on the dogs’ disgust response, then perhaps they interpreted the food as something to avoid, rather than something to seek out.

If that’s true, then it isn’t that wolves ignore dogs and focus on humans. Instead, wolves may actually be more sensitive to dog-specific social cues than even the dogs themselves. Despite being members of the same species, wolves need to pay close attention to their packmates’ subtle behavioral cues in a way that domestic dogs do not. Wolves have different breeding systems than dogs, and they rely on highly coordinated cooperative hunting to bring down large prey. The only prey a domestic dog can predictably bring down is a felt toy squirrel with a squeaker inside, and they don’t need help to do it.

Raised in the right sort of environment, wolves are just as capable of learning from humans as are domestic dogs. That means domestication probably channeled or redirected previously-existing skills instead of forming entirely new ones. 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.

Even more intriguing, rather than showing that dogs gained a unique suite of abilities for interacting with humans as a result of domestication, this research instead suggests that dogs’ assimilation into human society may have been accompanied by a reduced sensitivity to the social and emotional cues of their own species. Which means that phrase “man’s best friend” should probably be reversed: man, instead, is “dog’s best friend.”

Range F. & Virányi Z. (2013). Social learning from humans or conspecifics: differences and similarities between wolves and dogs, Frontiers in Psychology, 4 DOI:

Header image: Juvenile wolves at the Wolf Science Center, via Peter Kaut; used with permission. Photo of Dr. Zsófia Virányi with a wolf via Wolf Science Center; used with permission.

For more on dogs, wolves, and domestication:
Does Your Dog Love You Back?
Love Your Dog? You Should Thank Garbage
Searching for the Social in Contagious Yawning
If You Need to Test Your New Robot, Ask A Dog
For Word Learning, Size Matters If You’re A Dog
Do Dogs Feel Guilty?
Contagious Yawning: Evidence of Empathy?
Dogs, But Not Wolves, Use Humans As Tools
Dingoes Ate My Nametag: Tool Use in a Dingo
Real-Life Werewolves? Dog Bites and Full Moons
Might Pleistocene Fido Have Been A Fox?
Biological Evidence That Dog is Man’s Best Friend
Did Dogs Gain Their Social Intelligence By Accident?
Man’s new best friend? A forgotten Russian experiment in fox domestication

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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