Dogs have long been known to be social animals who managed to communicate best with their human companions. Some previous studies have suggested a possibility of social behavioral changes in canines through the process of domestication which took thousands of years. Now a new study by behavioral scientists have found evidence that these social skills found in dogs were inherited from their ancestors, the wolves, and these skills did not emerge due to domestication.
A study  conducted by scientists from Messerli Research Institute at the Vetmeduni Vienna and the Wolf Science Center has found that wolves not only discriminate quantities better but are also as attentive to humans – as well as the members of their own species – at least as much as dogs are (if not more). This skill was already present in wolves long before humans had interest in domesticating them, as stated in the study’s press release. A summary of their results and a new proposed theory was published in a paper in the scientific journal Frontiers in Psychology.
Study of origins of dog-human cooperation
Commonly accepted domestication hypotheses suggest: “Dogs have become tolerant and attentive as a result of humans actively selecting for these skills during the domestication process in order to make dogs cooperative partners.”
Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi from the Unit of Comparative Cognition at the Messerli Research Institute question the validity of this view and have developed the “Canine Cooperation Hypothesis”. Their hypothesis states that since wolves already are tolerant, attentive and cooperative, the relationship of wolves to their pack mates could have provided the basis for today’s human-dog relationship. An additional selection, at least for social attentiveness and tolerance, was not necessary during canine domestication.
Dogs accept humans as social partners
The researchers believe that wolves are not less socially attentive than dogs. Dogs however cooperate more easily with humans because they more readily accept people as social partners and more easily lose their fear of humans.
To test their hypothesis, Range and Virányi examined the social attentiveness and tolerance of wolves and dogs within their packs and toward humans.
Wolfs perform at least as good as dogs in some behavioural tests
Various behavioural tests showed that wolves and dogs have quite similar social skills. Among other things, the researchers tested how well wolves and dogs can find food that has been hidden by a conspecific or by a human. Both wolves and dogs used information provided by a human to find the hidden food.
In another study, they showed that wolves followed the gaze of humans. To solve the task, the animals may need to be capable of making a mental representation of the “looker’s” perspective. Wolves can do this quite well.
Another experiment gave dogs and wolves the chance to observe conspecifics as they opened a box. When it was the observer’s turn to do the same, the wolves proved to be the better imitators, successfully opening the box more often than dogs.
“Overall, the tests showed that wolves are very attentive to humans and to each other. Hypotheses which claim that wolves have limited social skills in this respect in comparison to dogs are therefore incorrect,” says Range.
Testing dogs and wolves in packs
At the Wolf Science Center in Ernstbrunn in Lower Austria, Range and Virányi investigated the social behaviour of dogs and wolves that grew up with members of their species and with humans.
“The animals are socialized both with conspecifics and with humans. To be able to compare the behaviour of dogs and wolves and to investigate the effects of domestication, it is important that the animals live in the same conditions,” explains Virányi.
- Friederike Range, Zsófia Virányi. Tracking the evolutionary origins of dog-human cooperation: the “Canine Cooperation Hypothesis”. Frontiers in Psychology, 2015; 5 doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01582