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15.02.2022: Contrary to popular belief, dogs do not possess higher socio-cognitive abilities nor are they less aggressive than wolves, as a review of studies on wolf-dog differences by Friederike Range and Sarah Marshall-Pescini from the Domestication Lab at Vetmeduni’s Konrad Lorenz Institute for Ethology shows. According to the review, which was recently published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, the observable differences between dogs and wolves are the result of human selection and differences in the animals’ natural environment. The newly gained knowledge also sheds new light on the “self-domestication” process of humans.

Based on claims that dogs are less aggressive and have more sophisticated socio-cognitive abilities than wolves, the domestication of dogs has been used to support the idea that humans have undergone a similar “self-domestication” process. In their review of studies on the differences between wolves and dogs, however, the two Vetmeduni researchers conclude that the scientific evidence does not support such claims.

“The results of our review indicate that dogs do not show increased socio-cognitive skills and are not less aggressive than wolves. Rather, compared to wolves, dogs seek to avoid conflicts with higher-ranking conspecifics and with humans. They may also have an increased inclination to follow rules, making them amenable social partners,” says Friederike Range. Co-author Sarah Marshall-Pescini points out that these conclusions “challenge the suitability of dog domestication as a model for human social evolution. Our review suggests that the domestication of dogs is best understood as their adaptation to a new niche dominated by humans, accompanied by selective pressure by humans for specific traits.”

Dog domestication – a useful model

The two researchers still see dog domestication as a good model to further the scientific understanding of the factors affecting human out-group dynamics and the increased propensity of humans to follow rules and adhere to social norms.

Dogs and the human self-domestication hypothesis

Several researchers have proposed that humans were subjected to a self-domestication process that started about 300,000 years ago – so that humans could be described as domesticated apes. According to the Human Self-Domestication Hypothesis (HSD), the most important selective pressure shaping modern humans included a decrease in aggression, leading to an enhancement of cognitive skills and improved cooperation. The HSD hypothesis further suggests that the selective pressure during human evolution was similar to that which shaped the traits of other domesticated species. The domestication of dogs has often been used as “proof of concept” for a connection between selection for decreased aggression, higher sociability and the enhancement of cognitive skills.

The article “Wolf-dog comparison: current status and implications for the human ‘self-domestication’"by Friederike Range and Sarah Marshall-Pescini was published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

To the scientific paper