Wolves Lead, Dogs Follow, And Both Cooperate With Humans
While many of us may believe dogs’ obedience and cooperation with humans to be a product of domestication, a new study has shown that wolves may possess the same abilities. It may be the case that wolves’ cooperation skills led to them joining humans and eventually becoming dogs, rather than wolves being intentionally bred into companions. In this study, the researchers hypothesized that wolves, if socialized to humans from a young age, would be equally proficient or superior to dogs in a test of coordination with a human partner.
This study was conducted with fifteen adult grey wolves and twelve adult mixed-breed dogs from the Wolf Science Center in Austria. Each wolf and dog was paired with a human with whom they were familiar through training, walking, feeding, and other experiments.
The human-canine pairs were to complete a test in which a tray of food is positioned behind a fence, and only through pulling on two ends of a rope at the same time can it be accessed. If only one end of the rope was pulled, the food would remain out of reach. Some of the canines had done this experiment with another canine, but none had performed it with a human partner.
Two variants of the test were conducted. In the first (the “spontaneous condition”) there was only one tray of food; in the second, (the “dual tray condition”), there were two. In neither experiment was the human to communicate with the canine, and the human was instructed to either pull with the canine, or pull after three seconds, whichever came first. In half of the Spontaneous Condition tests, the canine was released early enough that they would reach the rope first, and therefore be able to decide which side to pull. In the other half, the human would reach the rope first, and the canine would be able to either take the free end or steal the human’s end, in which case the human was instructed to take the free end. Only pairs that succeeded in the Spontaneous Condition would move on to the Dual Tray Condition.
Surprisingly, wolves succeeded above chance-level in the Spontaneous Condition, with a 61% success rate compared to the 49% success rate of dogs. Interestingly, previous success in the experiment with another dog or wolf was not associated with higher odds of success. Canines were generally more successful when they were able to reach the rope first: 88% vs 50% for wolves, and 70% vs. 40% for dogs. Dogs were more likely to look to the human during the experiment, likely as a way of non-verbal communication or to discern what the human wanted them to do. Wolves were much more assertive than dogs – 14 out of 15 stole the rope from their human at least once, while only two dogs did the same. Wolves stole the rope in almost 20% of all tests. Nine wolves and seven dogs completed the Spontaneous Condition 4/6 times in two consecutive sessions and moved on to the Dual Tray condition. Two additional wolves met the criteria but did not move on for unrelated reasons.
In the Dual Tray condition, both puzzles had to be solved to count as a success. If the human reached the first tray first, they were to choose the end of the rope the animal had shown to not prefer in previous trials. If the canine reached the tray first, the human was to pick whichever end of the rope was free. Once the first puzzle was solved, the canine had five seconds to move to the next tray. If they did not, the human would take the lead. Wolves successfully solved both trays in 76% of trials, and dogs in 67%. The canine led in 120 trials and followed in 78. Only one of the trials in which the canine led was failed, while 11 of the human-led trials failed. Wolves were significantly more likely to take the lead than dogs – 60% vs 35%.
Overall, this experiment provides evidence that socialized wolves have the ability to cooperate with humans, often outperforming dogs. It also shows that deference to humans may be the trait that has resulted from domestication, not intelligence or cooperation skills. This can be shown by the frequency with which wolves took the lead in these trials, and with which they stole the rope from the human partners.
Wolves knew what they needed to do and just needed the human to help them. Dogs, on the other hand, were largely following their human partner. The ability to cooperate likely led wolves and humans to begin working together, but humans valued deference more than assertiveness and therefore bred animals that would follow their lead rather than forge ahead. The natural independence of wolves may have been counterproductive for many tasks, like guarding livestock. Therefore, only animals which would defer to the humans’ orders (“Do not kill the goats”) would be useful.
This research provides an interesting look into the role of domestic animals in our lives, and the methods by which wild animals were transformed into our companions. Animal advocates can use this to help the general public draw links between companion animals and wildlife, and show how species exist on a continuum, rather than in discreet evolutionary silos.