Wolves show scientists are barking up the wrong tree
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The common notion is that dogs evolved a special sensitivity to their human masters during domestication.
But new research, reported this week in a paper in the online edition of Animal Behavior, reveals that wolves raised by people are at least as good as — and perhaps better than — dogs at following human signals.
Every dog owner knows that dogs can be uncannily responsive to people — readily following commands, seemingly expressing sympathy and even appearing to anticipate their owners’ intentions.
Past research has suggested that over the 14,000 or so years that dogs have been living with humans, they have experienced genetic adaptations that made them more attuned to their two-legged companions than are any other animals.
Several studies have compared the abilities of dogs to those of the wild relatives that dogs left in the forest — wolves. One such study found that even wolves hand raised in captivity could not understand the sorts of cues dogs find very simple to grasp, such as following a person’s pointed finger to uncover hidden food. Another study found that while dog puppies could usually find the food, wolf pups almost never could.
Wynne, together with UF doctoral student Monique Udell and UF postdoctoral associate Nicole Dorey, decided to reexamine the question of the special skills of dogs compared to wolves. They were urged to do so by the operators of Wolf Park, a nonprofit research and education facility established in 1972 in Battle Ground, Ind. The park managers’ experience with captive wolves — 18 grey wolves in several packs — had left the impression the animals were highly attentive to people.
The researchers devised a simple test.
An assistant stood between two empty paint cans placed on the ground, each at least a half meter, or about 20 inches, from the assistant’s finger. With the wolf watching, the assistant pointed at one can or the other. If the wolf approached and either touched or came close to touching the container with its snout, it received a food reward.
The researchers performed the identical test on pet dogs in Gainesville,as well as with stray dogs at the county animal shelter. If dogs were predisposed to human attentiveness by genetic selection over thousands of years in human company, such strays should in theory perform as well as pets.
The result: Only the wolves and the pet dogs could follow the point “at above chance levels,” according to the Animal Behavior paper. Wolves appeared to have the upper paw: While the groups had very similar average overall performances, more individual wolves followed the point than did individual pet dogs.
“Arguably, the wolves are better,” Wynne said.
Karen Pryor, an internationally known animal trainer and author, said the fact that the strays could not respond to the human cues shows the importance of positive reinforcement early in life.
“Living in a hostile or restrictive environment, in which reinforcement for initiative is rare or absent, creates poor learners, who, like these abandoned dogs, may react to every stimulus but don’t have much capacity for learning new stuff themselves,” Pryor wrote in an e-mail. “That goes for people, too; and our educational system is an example.”
Wynne said the previous studies’ outcome may have been skewed by the experimental conditions, such as fences separating human testers and wolves. Dogs also were tested indoors, whereas wolves were always tested outdoors.
By contrast, the UF group tested dogs both indoors and outdoors – only the indoor dogs performed well, possibly because they were less distracted.
“We’re not suggesting for a moment that we don’t see differences in the behavior of dogs compared to wolves,” Wynne said “What we’re saying is, it’s not the change that has been thought. Given the chance, wolves can be just as attentive to humans as dogs are.”
Udell added that while it appears an initial bond with humans is required, once that bond is established, dogs and wolves are equally likely to learn attentiveness to humans.
That rule may extend to other species as well, she said.
“If it’s true that dogs are not inheriting some predisposition that allows them to follow a human point, but instead learn this skill within their environment,” she said, “that could say a lot about how we look at social cognition in other species, including our own.”