Why Do Dogs Understand People Better Than Wolves?

Some enterprising researchers at Duke University decided to compare 44 dog pups with 37 wolf pups, between 5 and 18 weeks of age. Would the wolf pups behave the same way toward humans as the dog pups or differently?

While the wolf pups got a lot of human interaction, including hand-feeding, sleeping in their caretakers’ beds and almost round-the-clock human care, the dog puppies lived mostly with their mothers and littermates. They had little human contact.

Researchers hid treats in one of two bowls, then gave the dog or wolf a clue to find the food. Sometimes that included pointing and gazing in the direction where the food could be found.

Even with no training, dogs as young as 8 weeks of age knew where to go. Seventeen of 31 dog pups consistently went to the right bowl.

In contrast, none of the 26 human-reared wolf pups did better than a random guess. Control trials showed the puppies weren’t simply sniffing out the food.

Yet, both sets of puppies were equally skilled at other tests of mental ability, Salomons said. It was only people-reading skills that the dog puppies were better at.

HealthDay News, “After thousands of years of domestication, dogs ‘get’ people better than wolves” at UPI (July 14, 2021)

American staffordshire terrier dog with little kitten

The results, while dramatic, should not be surprising. Humans have been breeding dogs for thousands of years. We have been intelligently designing them to depend on us, obey us, help us, and want our approval:

Dog pups were also 30 times more likely than wolf pups to approach a stranger.

“With the dog puppies we worked with, if you walk into their enclosure they gather around and want to climb on you and lick your face, whereas most of the wolf puppies run to the corner and hide,” Salomons said.

HealthDay News, “After thousands of years of domestication, dogs ‘get’ people better than wolves” at UPI (July 14, 2021)

The dog pups “know” that humans are supposed to be friends, not enemies. Even if no one told them.

Now, an interesting neuroscience challenge looms: Identify the neural correlates of the difference in attitude to humans between dog pups and wolf pups.

Note: There is a sober side to all this. Some well-meaning people think, perhaps for wildlife conservation reasons, that they can “adopt” a wolf in the same way that they can adopt an orphaned dog from the local animal shelter. But, as one source puts it: “Many of these animals end up destroying furniture and homes, terrorizing other pets and their natural behaviors are perceived as aggressive.” There is nothing wrong, in principle, with wolves’ natural behavior in the wild but they are not generally suited to a human environment.

The paper is open access.


You may also wish to read: In what ways are dogs intelligent? There is no human counterpart to some types of dog intelligence.

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The real reason why only human beings speak. Language is a tool for abstract thinking—a necessary tool for abstraction—and humans are the only animals who think abstractly.

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