Dogs are thought to be domesticated wolves, with the first dog owners, living tens of thousands of years ago, favoring their helpful, cooperative nature. Now, a duo of comparative psychologists studying interactions of lab-raised dogs and wolf packs reveal something rather unexpected: Wolves cooperate, dogs submit, Science reports.
Various theories on the origins of dog-human cooperation suggest that dogs have tamer, more tolerant temperaments (compared with wild, beastly wolves), which allowed them to accept us as social partners. This may have helped dogs develop their human-like cognitive skills.
To study tolerance and attentiveness in canines, Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna gave a series of cognitive tasks to four packs of mixed-breed dogs and four packs of wolves. Each pack consisted of two to six canids accustomed to humans. The scientists raised all the animals since they were 10-day-old wee pups.
The team realized that the wolves were the tolerant, cooperative species. Dogs formed strict, steep hierarchies, with dominant animals demanding obedience from subordinates. Their findings suggest that dogs were bred for the ability to follow orders and be dependent on human masters, Science explains.
In a mealtime challenge, the researchers set out a bowl of food for a high-ranking dog paired with a low-ranking packmate; they repeated this for pairs of wolves. In every pairwise matchup, the higher ranking dog would monopolize the food. The wolves, however, were able to eat from the dish at the same time. Occasionally, a dominant wolf would act mildly aggressively towards the subordinate, but a subordinate dog wouldn’t even try to challenge the dominant one.
In another test where the animals had to follow each other’s gaze to find the food, wolves proved to be better communicators. “They are very cooperative with each other, and when they have a disagreement or must make a group decision, they have a lot of communication or ‘talk’ first,” Range explains. Not so with dogs: A higher ranked animal may react aggressively at a subordinate for even the slightest transgression.
When you think about it, humans are the top dog in hierarchical people-pup relationships. Ours is not a cooperative relationship like that in a wolf pack; we can typically stop dogs from taking easily available meat, for example. The enhanced sensitivity of dogs to social inhibition means they’re able to accept the leading role of their social partners -- human or dog -- more so than wolves.
Domestication, the work suggests, didn’t enhance the cooperative abilities of dogs. “It’s not about having a common goal,” Range says. “It’s about being with us, but without conflict. We tell them something, and they obey.”