Skip to main content

Domestication of dogs may have elaborated on a pre-existing capacity of wolves to learn from humans

12-04-2013 -Wolves can learn from observing humans as well as pack members where food is hidden, paying close attention to the details and recognize when humans only pretend to hide food, reports a study for the first time in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology. These findings imply that when our ancestors first started to domesticate dogs, they could have built on a pre-existing ability of wolves to learn from social partners.

Last month, a paper published in Science suggested that humans domesticated dogs between 15 and 33 thousand years ago, possibly from an extinct European population of grey wolves. But it remains unknown how much the ability of dogs to communicate with people derives from pre-existing social skills of their wolf ancestors, rather than from novel traits that arose during domestication.

In a recent study, Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi from the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna investigated if wolves and dogs can observe a familiar “demonstrator” – a human or a specially trained dog  –  to learn where to look for a tasty snack in one of three locations in a meadow. The subjects were 11 North American grey wolves and 14 mutts all between 5 and 7 months old, born in captivity, bottle-fed, and hand-raised in packs at the Wolf Science Center of Game Park Ernstbrunn, Austria.

The wolves and dogs were two to four times more likely to find the snack after watching a human or dog demonstrator hide it, and this implies that they had learnt from the demonstration instead of only relying on their sense of smell. Moreover, they rarely looked for the snack when the human demonstrator had visibly given the food to the experimenter and then pretended to hide it, and this proves that they had watched very carefully.

The dogs showed the same differentiation in regard to the two dog demonstrations, but the wolves did not. In both cases, the wolves followed the conspecific demonstration less than the dogs did. The researchers attribute this finding to wolves being more attentive towards the details of the conspecifics behaviours than the dogs. Although the demonstrator dogs were trained to execute the demonstration, they disliked the food reward, which might have decreased the interest of the wolves in finding the food reward.

Overall, the researchers conclude that the ability to learn from other species, including humans, is not unique to dogs but was already present in their wolf ancestors. Prehistoric humans and the ancestors of dogs could build on this ability by being able to better coordinate their actions.

The article “Observing humans and conspecifics: social learning in dogs and wolves”, by Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi was published yesterdy in the Journal Frontiers in Psychology erscheinen.