Can Wolves be as Social with Humans as Dogs?

Can Wolves be as Social with Humans as Dogs?

One of the many reasons that dogs make such fantastic pets and family members is their attentiveness to humans. Although our dogs may not understand exactly what we are saying, we get the sense they can understand what we are feeling. But why are they so attentive?

In the short history of investigating dog psychology, researchers have found that these attentive behaviors were not observed in wolves, leading them to think that the process of domestication is what led dogs to be cooperative with humans. This “domestication hypothesis” suggests that, overtime, humans actively selected tolerance when raising and breeding dogs so that they would be more attentive to us. However, new research from the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna brings this theory into question.

Are wolves less attentive than dogs?

Past research has focused on comparing human-dog and human-wolf interactions. When it appeared that wolves were less attentive to humans than dogs, it led to the seemingly logical conclusion that dogs developed this “natural” attentiveness during domestication. But the researchers at Vienna have brought another idea into the fold: “It is possible that these differences reflect only an improved capability of dogs to accept humans as social partners instead of an increase of their general tolerance, attentiveness and cooperativeness.” In other words, domestication may not have made dogs more attentive than their wolf ancestors, but instead possibly made them more likely to accept humans into their “pack” and therefor more likely to display attentive behavior towards humans.

So what does this mean? It implies that wolves could have the same capability of cooperation with humans, but it is more difficult for wolves to accept humans as social partners.

How did they test this?

At the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, researchers raise dogs and wolves and socialize them in similar ways to humans and those within their own species (or “conspecifics”). Then, they put them through simple tests to explore their attentiveness towards humans and conspecifics. What did they find?

  • Researchers tested how well dogs and wolves can find hidden food using nonverbal information provided by a human with whom they are socialized. Both dogs and wolves performed equally well at this, showing that wolves are just as capable of understanding human cues if they are a part of their pack.
  • In another study, they showed that wolves follow the gaze of humans they are socialized with, just like dogs do.
  • Researchers then tested the ability of wolves and dogs to imitate behavior. They had both humans and conspecifics show wolves and dogs how to open a box. Surprisingly, wolves actually did better than dogs and were more likely to successfully open the box after watching a pack mate do it.

According to this research, wolves seem to have the same social capabilities of tolerance, attentiveness, and cooperation as dogs do.

Why should I care?

This research implies that the social capabilities of wolves established the foundation that allowed dog-human relationships to flourish. It sheds light on a potential reason why a partnership between humans and wolves came so “naturally,” allowing the dog-human cooperation to evolve. Without the wolf’s social-nature, we could not have domesticated them into the dogs we know and love today. It appears, according to this research, that dogs inherited their social skills from wolves, instead of developing said skills through domestication.

Although, I would still advise to not keep a wolf as a pet. Definitely don’t try this at home.

Image courtesy of Wolf Science Center

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