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Unlike wolves, dogs are crazy about humans

10.06.2020: Dogs have been called man’s best friend. A recent study by the Domestication Lab at Vetmeduni Vienna now shows the role played by domestication in dogs’ sociability towards humans. According to the study, dogs are more attracted to humans than wolves, regardless of their socialization experience.

Current comparative studies on human-directed behaviours of dogs and wolves indicate that domestication has acted on the general attitudes of dogs and not on specific socio-cognitive skills. Against this background, a recent hypothesis, the so-called hypersociability hypothesis, suggests that domestication may have increased the overall sociability of dogs.

Domestication resulted in increased interest in human social interaction

In the recently presented study, researchers from the Domestication Lab at Vetmeduni Vienna investigated this suggestion in more detail and tested one aspect of the hypersociability hypothesis – namely, what motivates dogs to interact more with humans compared to wolves: food or cuddling. The researchers also investigated how experience with humans influences the motivation to interact with them. The main finding of the study is that the domestication of dogs has increased their overall interest in humans. Compared to wolves, dogs have a much higher interest in being in proximity to human partners.

Driving motivation to interact with humans remains unclear

According to Martina Lazzaroni, “Our study supports the idea that domestication has affected dogs’ interest in being in proximity to a human partner providing food or petting, and this also seems to be the case in dogs with a relatively sparse socialization experience.” At present, however, it is not clear what the driving motivation to interact with humans may be. “Future studies including groups of dogs with different experiences and tested in different contexts as well as more detailed analyses of the types of behaviours exhibited may help to answer this exciting question,” Lazzaroni adds.

Experimental set-up: choice task for wolves and dogs

As part of their study, the researchers compared wolves and dogs living at the Vetmeduni Vienna’s Wolf Science Center (WSC) with pet dogs and with free-ranging dogs in Morocco. The behaviour of the animals was tested using a two-stage experimental set-up. In the pre-test phase, the animals were exposed to two different persons, one after the other. One person invited the animal to be petted (contact provider) and the other fed the animal (food provider). In the test phase, the animals could choose which of the two persons to approach, both standing quietly in a neutral posture. Surprisingly, free-ranging dogs spent more time with the contact provider in the pre-test phase than pet dogs. The researchers therefore carried out a follow-up test for pet dogs in a familiar, distraction-free area. Free-ranging dogs and pet dogs then showed no differences in the time spent cuddling.

Test shows no clear preference for specific persons

In the test phase, the WSC dogs were more likely than the wolves to approach the two experimenters. However, the researchers were unable to find a clear preference for one person over the other when comparing the WSC dogs and wolves or when comparing pet dogs and free-ranging dogs. The findings thus support the hypothesis that domestication has affected dogs’ behaviour in terms of their overall interest in being in proximity to a human partner – even in the case of free-ranging dogs with a rather sparse socialization experience.

The article “The Effect of Domestication and Experience on the Social Interaction of Dogs and Wolves With a Human Companion” by Martina Lazzaroni, Friederike Range, Jessica Backes, Katrin Portele, Katharina Scheck and Sarah Marshall-Pescini was published in Frontiers in Psychology.