Dogs And Wolves May Not Be So Different After All; Study Suggests Wolves Can Be Domesticated, Too

By Ben Wolford on December 3, 2013 5:55 PM EST

Wolves Learning
New research suggests domesticated dogs may have picked up human understanding from wolves. (Photo: Photo: Peter Kaut)

We all know that dogs have a special connection to us humans. They notice when we feed them or when we don't. They respond to us when we point or speak. But wolves were typically thought not to have much interest in people. And that has led many scientists to believe that the dog-human understanding was the selective product of the domestication process.

But new research suggests that model may not be accurate. Scientists in Austria have published a study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in which they tested the ability of wolves and domesticated dogs to follow the cues of "demonstrators," which in this case were humans or other specially trained dogs. The test was to determine whether the subjects — 11 North American grey wolves and 14 mutts between the ages of five and seven months old — could learn where to find food in a meadow after watching the demonstrator place it there.

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Dogs' abilities to communicate and cooperate with humans "are often assumed to originate partly from the dogs' evolutionary adaptation to the human environment and partly from their life-long experiences with humans," wrote the study's authors, Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi, of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna. "Up to now, most of this reasoning has been based on the performance of canines in interactions with humans, and it has rarely been discussed to what extent the human-like characteristics of dogs originate from the socio-cognitive skills of wolves used in within-species contexts." In other words, no one has tried to determine whether wolves were smart before evolution and domestication turned them into dogs.

In their study, the wolves and mutts were all raised in the exact same captive conditions, bottle-fed and hand-raised at an Austrian science center. The subject and the demonstrator stood in a meadow. The demonstrator hid a treat — a dead, one-day-old chick (to each his own) — in one of three locations. Wolves and dogs both, it turns out, were two to four times more likely to find the chick after watching the demonstrator hide it. "This implies that they had learnt from the demonstration instead of only relying on their sense of smell," they said in a press release.

The scientists realized two other interesting things. The wolves and dogs were more likely to ignore the food if the demonstrator had only pretended to place it in the meadow, "and this proves they had watched very carefully," they said. But they also discovered that the wolves were more likely to go after the food placed by humans than the food placed by dogs. Virányi and Range suggest that could mean that the wolves were observing all the more closely: If the dog left it in the field and wouldn't eat it, then they don't want it either.

All of this could mean that wolves have a greater capacity for human understanding than scientists previously thought. The research doesn't prove it, but given the findings, it's possible that prehistoric humans may have actually had close relationships with wolves, in much the same way we do with dogs. "The ability to learn from other species, including humans," the researchers conclude, "is not unique to dogs."

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