Dogs might be man's best friend, but wolves give them a run for their money when it comes to working with us. New research has shown that wolves cooperate with humans just as well as dogs do - a finding which could make us rethink how our pooches became domesticated.


The domestication of dogs began some 15,000 to 40,000 years ago, when grey wolves and dogs split from a common, now extinct, wolf species. Over time, as dogs became tamed and selectively bred by humans, they gradually evolved into the varied breeds we keep as pets today.

So why did dogs become so close to humans, and not wolves? One theory is that, during domestication, dogs acquired traits that made them more cooperative than wolves. However, researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna have cast doubt on this idea, showing that wolves are just as cooperative when given the chance.

Researchers are deciphering the way these pack animals communicate and it seems that facial expressions, rather than sounds or scents, hold the key. © Getty Images

To test the animals' cooperation, the scientists set up an experiment in which the animal and the human had to pull simultaneously on two ends of a rope in order to move a tray containing food. The experiments were carried out with dogs and grey wolves who had been raised from a young age at the Wolf Science Center in Ernstbrunn, Austria. The animals had similar experiences with humans throughout their lives, which meant that their ability to perform on cooperation tasks could be fairly compared.

The researchers found that wolves and dogs were equally adept at working with humans, but an interesting difference emerged. Wolves were more likely to come up with their own tactics to get the food, such as stealing the rope from the human.

"While wolves tend to initiate behaviour and take the lead, dogs are more likely to wait and see what the human partner does and follow that behaviour," said Dr Friederike Range, who led the study.

The researchers propose that it's 'the wolf within the dog' that has enabled pooches to cooperate with humans so effectively. Rather than gaining their cooperative skills during domestication, dogs, it seems, have inherited these skills from their wolf ancestors.

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Instead, the more submissive nature of dogs compared to wolves may be why humans were able to get on so well with them and domesticate them as pets. Dogs' tendency to follow our lead would have made it easier for us to work alongside them and accept them safely into our homes.


James Lloyd
James LloydStaff writer, BBC Science Focus

James is staff writer at BBC Science Focus magazine. He especially enjoys writing about wellbeing and psychology.