Wolves Can Cooperate With Humans Just as Well as Dogs

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In a new study, researchers at the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, Austria demonstrated that human-raised wolves are just as successful as trained dogs at working with humans to solve cooperative tasks, suggesting that dogs' well-known ability to cooperate with humans did not arise purely from domestication.

The work is published in Scientific Reports.

Animal behaviorist Dr. Friederike Range and her team worked with fifteen grey wolves and twelve mixed-breed dogs that had been raised at the Wolf Science Center since they were puppies. Working with the trainers with whom they had the best relationship with, the animals were tested in various trials and conditions of the cooperative loose-string paradigm, pictured and described by the researchers below.

"Successful cooperation was defined as the animal coordinating its actions with the human partner so that they pulled simultaneously on the two ends of the rope thereby moving the platform forward allowing them to access the out-of-reach food. If only one partner pulled, the string would come loose and the trial was coded as a failure."

Analyzing the results of dozens of trials, Range and her colleagues found that socialized wolves and dogs did not differ in their ability to cooperate with a human partner – both performed very well at solving the string puzzle. In fact, wolves tended to be more successful than dogs when facing the puzzle for the first time.

The closely-related canines did exhibit a few distinct behaviors, however. For example, during the trials, dogs looked at their human partners twice as much as wolves, as if they were searching for guidance. Moreover, in conditions where the researchers had the human-animal duos solve two puzzles consecutively, wolves tended to move from one puzzle to the next without waiting for their human partners, while dogs almost always waited for their humans to make the first move.

"Placing it into a broader context, the dogs’ behaviors towards their human cooperating partners, when com- pared to that of wolves, appear to be more deferential," the authors wrote.

The results suggest that while domestication lead dogs to become less fearful and more subservient towards humans, it did not singlehandedly produce their ability to cooperate with us. Rather, it seems dogs' remarkable cooperative abilities more likely evolved from wolves' already prodigious social skills. Wolves are noted for working with their conspecifics to raise young, hunt, and defend their territories.

Source: Friederike Range, Sarah Marshall-Pescini, Corinna Kratz & Zsófia Virányi. "Wolves lead and dogs follow, but they both cooperate with humans." Scientific Reportsvolume 9, Article number: 3796 (2019)

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