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Lost in translation: In shedding their wolfish past, dogs lost ability to cooperate

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There’s one thing that wolves are still way better at than their domesticated descendants (aka dogs) — cooperating with their own kind.

Domestication may have led to canines becoming more skilled at cooperating, manipulating and melting the hearts of people, but they lost something in the transition.

While they’ll still run together, play together and display other pack-like tendencies, dogs are less likely than wolves to work together as a team to accomplish a goal, says a new study.

To provide a human equivalent, wolves will work together like a team of Navy Seals, while dogs are more like, well, Congress.

Sarah Marshall-Pescini, from the University of Vienna, has found that dogs lag far behind wolves when it comes to accomplishing a task that requires them to cooperate.

She conducted a simple series of experiments in which dogs have to pull on two pieces of rope to bring a piece of distant tray of food within reach. While the dogs almost always failed, the wolves, working together, frequently succeeded.

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“The idea is that we’ve changed their psychology to make them into super-cooperative beings,” says Marshall-Pescini. But that’s only true for their relationships with humans, she added.

By domesticating dogs, humans ruined the pack instinct that makes wolves such great hunters and survivors.

“They adapted to the niche we provided for them and it changed their sociality,” Marshall-Pescini says.

That applies even to dogs living in the wild. They mostly keep to themselves, scavenging alone on human garbage. When they do form packs, they are usually small and loose-knit.

By contrast, wolves live in extremely tight-knit family groups. They rely on their pack-mates to bring down large prey, and they work together to rear each other’s pups.

Fifteen wolves and 15 dogs currently live in Vienna’s Wolf-Science Center, a facility established to look at the differences between wolves and dogs “in as fair a way as possible,” says Marshall-Pescini.

“They’re raised in exactly the same way, with a lot of human contact. This allows us to test a lot of different things without the confounding variables of wolves not being used to humans and pet dogs being super-used to humans.”

In the experiment, a string was threaded through rings on a tray of food on a side of a cage the animals could not access.

If one animal grabs an end of the string and pulls, it just comes out of the rings. If two animals pull on the two ends together, the tray slides close enough for them to eat the food.

All in all, the dog teams did terribly. Just one out of eight pairs managed to pull the tray across, and only once out of dozens of trials. By contrast, five out of seven wolf pairs succeeded, on anywhere between 3 and 56 percent of their attempts.

As The Atlantic explained it in an excellent summary of the study:

“It’s not that the dogs were uninterested: They explored the strings as frequently as the wolves did. But the wolves would explore the apparatus together — biting, pawing, scratching, and eventually pulling on it. The dogs did not. They tolerated each other’s presence, but they were much less likely to engage with the task at the same time, which is why they almost never succeeded.”

“The dogs are really trying to avoid conflict over what they see as a resource,” said Marshall-Pescini. “This is what we found in food-sharing studies, where the dominant animal would take the food and the subordinate wouldn’t even try to approach. With wolves, there’s a lot of arguing and it sounds aggressive, but they end up sharing. They have really different strategies in situations of potential conflict. [With the dogs], you see that if you avoid the other individual, you avoid conflict, but you can’t cooperate either.”

(Bottom photo: Wolf Science Center/Vetmeduni Vienna)