Study: Dogs’ inner wolves make them good at working with people

Forget that romantic lone wolf stereotype. Wild wolves work together to hunt, rear their offspring, and defend their territory. And they passed those traits down to modern-day dogs—their closest relatives.

And a new study suggests that it’s those traits that enable dogs to cooperate and work with humans, which goes counter to the conventional wisdom that dogs learned to cooperate with humans through the process of domestication—a process that supposedly bred the wolf right out of them.

In the study, researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, Austria, compared how dogs and gray wolves cooperated with humans to solve specific tasks.

They tested 15 young gray wolves from two to eight years old, and 12 mixed-breed dogs from two to seven years old at the Wolf Science Center in Austria. Both wolves and dogs had been socialized with people early on and had developed close ties to them. All the animals were kept under similar conditions.

To test whether cooperation comes naturally to wolves and dogs, scientists carried out a classic behavior experiment known as the rope-pulling test, which involves two animals simultaneously pulling on a rope to pull a tray toward them to get food. In this case, researchers had dogs and wolves pull on one end of the rope while a human pulled on the other end.

The animals were rewarded with a piece of raw meat only if they pulled the rope together with the human. Both dogs and wolves were equally successful in cooperating with humans.

But there was a huge difference in the way each species cooperated.

Lead researcher Friederike Range, PhD, associate professor at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, said, “The detailed analysis of the cooperative interactions revealed interesting differences between wolves and dogs. It shows that, while wolves tend to initiate behavior and take the lead, dogs are more likely to wait and see what the human partner does and follow that behavior.”

In other words, both dogs and wolves can cooperate with humans, but wolves are more proactive, whereas dogs want to be shown what to do.

The researchers also suggest that the timidity or holding back they observed in dogs may have been due to the more submissive personalities being bred into modern species to make them more suitable as pets.

The researchers write: “We propose that, after an initial selection against fear during the domestication process, dogs were selected for increased deference in order to minimize conflicts over resources, to ensure safe cohabitation, and coworking in a way that humans lead and dogs follow.”

Photo Credit: © iStock/Dmytro Lastovych