Wolves might actually be friendlier and more forthcoming that dogs when cooperation is concerned, new research suggests. The findings go against the grain of popular wisdom that casts ‘man’s best friend’ as more of a team player than the wolf.


Image credits Andrea Bohl.

Wolves — they eat grandmothers and ambush unsuspecting kids traveling through the forest. At least, they do so in fairy tales. But that image is a good representative of what people generally hold to be true about wolves: these are dangerous, highly intelligent, highly capable hunters and ultimately, profoundly wild creatures. Our view of the dogs, however, is the polar opposite. They’re fluffy, playful members of the family, so perfectly adapted to civilized life and so socially graceful that they won the monicker “man’s best friends.”

Not so fast

It’s also not true, according to a research team led by Dr Sarah Marshall-Pescini, a senior postdoc researcher at the Wolf Science and Clever dog Lab. Although previous research often suggests that domestication has imparted a more tolerant temperament to dogs compared to their wolf ancestors, a paper Dr Sarah’s team recently published casts doubt on this idea.

“We still have very much this idea of the big, bad wolf and the cuddly pooch on your sofa,” Dr Sarah Marshall-Pescini, who led the research, told BBC News.

“But, I think the simplest message is that the story is not quite as clear as that.”

Wolves are very social animals. They base their packs on close familial ties and work together to raise pups or hunt. Modern dogs are also considered to be social animals. However, they don’t exhibit cooperation behaviors such as those listed above. Considering the belief that domestication made them friendlier and more tolerant of humans and other dogs, that shouldn’t be the case.

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To find out what’s up, the team ran a classic behavior experiment and tested both species at the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, Austria, where wolves and dogs are raised together in the same environment ever since puppyhood. Known as the rope-pulling test, it’s basically a set-up that requires two animals to pull on a rope and get access to some food. The trick is that the testees have to work together — if they don’t both simultaneously pull on the rope, they don’t get any reward.

The center houses about 15 mongrel dogs and seven small packs of timber wolves, with two to three wolves in each pack. Dogs managed to successfully complete the test 2 times out of a total of 416 attempts, while wolves succeeded 100 times in 416 attempts — which, according to Dr Marshall-Pescini, puts their performance on par with that of chimpanzees. It’s probably glaringly evident, but the dogs almost never worked together, only collaborating 0.48% of the time. The team’s working hypothesis is that the dogs were reluctant to work together on the rope task because they wished to avoid potential conflicts — both wolves and dogs were curious about the food trays, the team reports, but dogs approached the food one at a time while wolves rarely waited their turn.

“Wolves will argue over food but also feed at the same time, [but] dogs simply avoid the potential [of] conflict,” Marshall-Pescini explains.

Too domesticated?

Dog snout.

Image credits Wow Phochiangrak.

The findings suggest that wolves’ wild streak makes them less averse to conflict, and they instead sort things out while working together. It goes against the traditional view of domestication, which holds that the process fosters more cooperative species. It’s easy to see why. Our perception of dogs as more cooperative than wolves likely comes down to the fact that dogs can be easily trained to work (as herd dogs, in hunts, or to rescue trapped survivors) or play with us.

However, it’s much harder to get dogs to cooperate with fellow dogs once you take people out of the picture. The team notes that this is especially true of village dogs, free-ranging animals with no owners or training which make up about 80% of all dogs on the planet. They will gather in loose packs and subsist mostly on scavaging garbage bins for scraps.

Very little research has been devoted to understanding these mooches, but work such as this might change that. The team’s next step will be to test how rearing or breeding changes how dogs cooperate with other dogs. Marshall-Pescini also wants to design a test that requires sequential cooperation, so the dogs’ tendency to avoid going after food at the same time can be taken out of the equation.

The paper “Importance of a species’ socioecology: Wolves outperform dogs in a conspecific cooperation task” has been published in the journal PNAS.