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The “mean wolf to friendly dog” domestication story might be wrong

The story of dog domestication is one of converting the wild wolf into man’s nicer, smarter, best friend. It might be all wrong.
dog domestication
Credit: Milo Weiler and Charles Deluvio / Unsplash
Key Takeaways
  • Domestication is commonly thought to have made dogs less aggressive and granted them enhanced socio-cognitive abilities compared to wolves.
  • But free-ranging domestic dogs are often more aggressive than wolves. Moreover, studies find that wolves raised by humans cooperate as well with their caretakers as do pet dogs.
  • This suggests that domestication didn’t lead to less aggression or enhanced cognitive abilities in dogs. Rather, domestication simply may have made dogs less fearful and more subservient.

Somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago, a now extinct species of wolf began visiting human hunter-gatherers around their campfires, perhaps seeking warmth, but definitely snacking on discarded food. The rendezvous were undoubtedly uneasy at first, but over the years grew more cordial and eventually expected.

As human settlements grew in size over hundreds and thousands of years, these wolves became fixtures of daily life, prowling about for unwanted waste. Their offspring changed along with their evolving living conditions, growing friendlier, less fearful, and perhaps less frightening in appearance to their human hosts, as these cuter canids might have been more likely to be nurtured and nourished. Eventually, over thousands more years, when human settlements developed into larger villages, these canids actually moved into human homes. What was once a wolf was now a dog.

This is the timeless tale of dog domestication, a quintessential evolutionary love story. Over tens of thousands of years, wolves’ characteristics molded to adapt to a human-made environment. In the process, these canids became less aggressive and developed more sophisticated socio-cognitive skills compared with their wolf relatives.

Or did they?

A dog’s tale: rethinking domestication

In a review published last week in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, researchers Friederike Range and Sarah Marshall-Pescini of the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna questioned whether dogs really are less aggressive and show more advanced social thinking abilities than modern-day wolves, thus challenging some basic tenets of dog domestication.

They first noted that prior research comparing pet dogs and wild wolves really isn’t apt. It is better, instead, to examine the group dynamics of wolf packs and packs of free-ranging domestic dogs. (Free-ranging dogs actually constitute more than 70% of the domestic dogs living today.) By this comparison, there is less aggression within wolf packs. Moreover, wolves are “highly reliant on a cohesive and functional pack structure allowing them to successfully forage, defend their territory, and raise pups,” the researchers wrote. On the other hand, pack dogs do not tend to cooperate as much and will often forage by themselves or hoard food resources.

Wolves vs. dogs: a controlled experiment

More recently, researchers have raised wolves and dogs in a controlled environment from birth to adulthood, then tested how the animals react to and cooperate with humans. While one would assume that wolves would still be more aggressive than dogs, this wasn’t necessarily the case.

“A study testing physical restraint in wolf and dog puppies revealed that, while wolves tried to bite more often at 3 months of age, no differences in biting attempts appeared at later ages,” the researchers wrote. “Only in tests involving access to resources did four of 16 wolves consistently show aggression toward humans, while none of the 11 dogs did. Studies using a stranger’s threatening approach found more avoidance behavior in adult wolves than in dogs and more occurrences of aggression in (pet) dogs.”

And when it comes to cooperation with humans, human-raised wolves can actually match or beat dogs in a variety of tasks.

“Human-socialized wolves outperform dogs in following human gaze and perform similarly when begging from an attentive versus inattentive human,” the researchers noted.

In a 2019 study that Range and Marshall-Pescini conducted together at the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, they found that socialized wolves performed just as well as dogs when cooperating with humans to solve a puzzle to attain out-of-reach food.

Together, recent science suggests that dog domestication didn’t lead to less aggression or enhanced socio-cognitive abilities. Rather, domestication may have simply made dogs less fearful and more subservient. “Compared with wolves, dogs seek to avoid conflicts… and might have an increased inclination to follow rules, making them amenable social partners,” the researchers wrote.

Range and Marshall-Pescini concluded by challenging others to see dogs “as a species adapted to their unique ecological niche and not only as a human-made product.”

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