Wolves Are Better than Dogs at Working Together to Solve a Problem

If you’ve ever watched The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan, you know that we humans love to compare our canine companions to their relative, the wolf. Millan loves to insist on tapping into a dog’s wolf-life instincts in order to get our pets to behave. But according to new research from the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, there are lots of ways that wolves and dogs differ, including how well they’re able to work together.

“Wolves generally have a stronger exploratory urge to investigate things,” Friederike Range, a researcher at the Wolf Science Center and the University of Vienna, said in a press release. “However, they clearly outperformed the dogs when co-operating was the only chance for success.”

It’s long been supposed that domestic dogs should be better at cooperation since they have more docile temperaments, but that doesn’t seem to be a match for the wolf’s strong pack dynamic, according to the study, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To test it out, the researchers created a puzzle where the only way for the animals to access a tasty treat (in this case, a slab of meat), was if a pair of animals worked together to simultaneously drag two ropes. If only one rope was pulled, the puzzle would tilt and they wouldn’t be able to get to the reward. All of the animals were previously familiar with pulling a rope to get a treat, but they had never seen this exact challenge before.

The Wolf Science Center was an ideal place to test out this challenge because it has multiple packs of wolves and dogs, which are separated from one another but raised in the same conditions. Wolves consistently performed better than dogs at working together and getting their reward. When trying it out for the first time (having not been trained how to do it), five of the seven wolf pairs succeeded in at least one trial out of 36, with some pairs having success as much as 56 percent of the time.

But the dogs? They couldn’t quite get the hang of it—only one of the eight dog pairs succeeded at all, and only in one trial out of 36.

The researchers then tried training the pairs how to get the reward, to see if that helped. While both wolves and dogs were better at the puzzle after training, the wolves still consistently outperformed the dogs. When the researchers added in more challenges, such as having two puzzle boxes spaced at opposite ends of the enclosure, or holding back one of the pair for 10 seconds, the wolves still were more cooperative than their domestic counterparts.

The researchers also measured other factors like natural behavior and aggression to see if there were other influences, but couldn’t find a significant difference. In the paper, the authors say that this is an important reminder that dogs might not be as closely related, behaviorally, to wolves as we like to believe.

“Studies on captive pack-living wolves and dogs suggest that considering dogs a ‘tamer/friendlier’ version of wolves is an oversimplification,” the study reads.

Take it from our wolf friends: team work makes the dream work.

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