Hand-reared wolf puppies remained wild and afraid of strangers but in dogs, communication skills emerge in early puppyhood, says Duke University-led study.
Of course you think it is common sense that dogs make better pets than wolves. Now, a new study led by researchers at Duke University spells out: wolves can’t follow our cues either. And even lovingly hand-reared ones don’t evince an appreciation for humankind.
The study on the infant canines and their interaction with humans was published in the journal Current Biology.The project compared 44 dog puppies, all Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers or Labrador/golden crosses, and 37 wolf puppies aged between 5 and 18 weeks, and reached the conclusion that from infancy, dog puppies can pick up human cues where wolf puppies cannot. The findings support the idea that dog domestication changed not just their look but their minds as well, the researchers claim.
On nonsocial tests, such as memory, the dog and wolf babies performed similarly. Socially, the differences between the pup species were stark.
Dog puppies are more attracted to humans, read human gestures more skillfully, and make more eye contact with humans than wolf puppies.
A recent theory based on population genetics suggests that wolves were domesticated in Siberia over 23,000 years ago. Some theories place the dog-human relationship much earlier.
What we can say is that when humans crossed the Bering land bridge from Siberia into the Americas over 15,000 years ago, they brought dogs; in prehistoric Jordan, they hunted with dogs (based on indirect evidence of an explosion in dead hares – the thinking is, people had their dogs catch them); prehistoric people in Israel were buried with dogs, indicating a relationship of value, over 12,000 years ago. Prehistoric Saudis had dogs.
Dogs were the only animal known to have been domesticated in the Paleolithic, many thousands of years before people settled down and began to grow food, which is when the cat is thought to have first joined our households.
During this time, dogs seem to have developed “theory of mind” abilities: the mental skill to infer what we are thinking and feeling, in some situations. Our closest relative the chimp cannot do this, the researchers point out. Nor, they show, can the wolf.
One test involved hiding a treat in one of two bowls, then giving the puppies a clue, by gazing at the appropriate bowl; or placing a small wooden block beside the appropriate bowl. “The results were striking,” the university reports. Seventeen out of 31 dog puppies consistently went to the right bowl. In contrast, none out of 26 human-reared wolf pups did better than a random guess. A lot of the dog puppies got it right at the first attempt, untrained: they just got it, they read the cues, the researchers say.
It isn’t about smarts. Dogs are not smarter than wolves, testing has shown. But dogs are a lot better at reading people. And they’re not as wary of us. The dog puppies were 30 times more likely than wolf puppies to approach a stranger, the team writes.
Dogs understand our gestures, without intensive training. Some do it better than others, but by and large this is why dogs are great service animals.
At least some dogs can follow the cue of pointing a finger: “Crucially, a recent study found that the ability to follow human pointing gestures is highly heritable, and over 40 percent of the variation in this skill is attributable to genetics,” the team writes. This speaks to the power of domestication in shaping the dog’s persona.
At the end of the day, dogs may have been domesticated into having an idea what we are feeling or wish, but having a predator in the house isn’t “safe.” Despite splitting from the wolf possibly as much as 40,000 years ago, any breed of dog can pose a danger. It has been claimed that female dogs especially empathize with the pain and stress of their owners, compared with males. But that may not help if you get stupid drunk and pass out after forgetting to feed the animal.