In a touchscreen-based food task, wolves appeared to be more altruistic than dogs.


This contrasts with the hypothesis that charitable behaviour appeared in dogs during the course of domestication, thanks to their close relationship with humans. However, it confirms an alternative idea that 'prosocial' behaviour (helping, sharing or cooperating, which benefits other individuals or society) is a trait derived from wolves, which are dogs' ancestors.

In the study, which took place at the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, Austria, nine wolves and six dogs living in packs were trained to press their nose against a touchscreen to deliver food to a visible occupant in an adjacent enclosure.

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Over the course of the study, the wolves chose to deliver much more food to the adjacent enclosure when it contained a member of their own pack than when it was occupied by a non-member. This confirms previous research that relationships are an important part of prosociality in wolves.

The dogs, on the other hand, delivered no more food to the adjacent enclosure when it was occupied by a member of their pack, compared to a non-member.

"This study shows that domestication did not necessarily make dogs more prosocial," said study leader Rachel Dale. "Rather, it seems that tolerance and generosity towards group members help to produce high levels of cooperation, as seen in wolves."

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Cooperation is important for wolves, as they will work together when hunting, defending territory and looking after young. Pack dogs, on the other hand, are more solitary.

Yet the researchers caution that we shouldn't relate these findings to Fido. Apparently, pet dogs tend to show more prosocial behaviour than pack dogs, probably due to training, treats and encouragement from their owners. More research needs to be carried out to tease out the differences between pack dogs and our beloved pets.


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Alice Lipscombe-SouthwellManaging editor, BBC Science Focus

Alice is the managing editor at BBC Science Focus Magazine. She has a BSc in zoology with marine zoology. Her interests include natural history, wildlife, the outdoors, health and fitness.