Study Shows Why You Can't Have Wolves as Pets

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American red wolf pups born at North Carolina Zoo, Asheboro, in May.
American red wolf pups, North Carolina Zoo: They will not love strangers.Credit: Moriah Angott/AP

Frankly, it’s not news that dogs make better pets than wolves. As the proud owner of an actual wolf told this author many moons ago, “One doesn’t want to get so drunk that you pass out with him in the room.” Because he might eat you, the owner elaborated.

Your pet Shih Tzu might also chow down on your supine body, if he’s neglected and you’re seemingly acquiescent. But dogs can clearly comprehend cues from human beings, such as gaze, while the great apes cannot. Now, a new study led by researchers at Duke University spells out: wolves can’t follow our cues either. And even lovingly hand-reared ones don’t evince an appreciation for humankind.

The study on the infant canines and their interaction with humans was published Monday in the journal Current Biology.

It wasn’t huge. The project compared 44 dog puppies, all Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers or Labrador/golden crosses, and 37 wolf puppies aged between 5 and 18 weeks, and reached the conclusion that from infancy, dog puppies can pick up human cues where wolf puppies cannot. The findings support the idea that doggo domestication changed not just their look but their minds as well, the researchers posit.

On nonsocial tests, such as memory, the dog and wolf babies performed similarly. Socially, the differences between the pup species were stark.

“We find that dog puppies are more attracted to humans, read human gestures more skillfully, and make more eye contact with humans than wolf puppies,” the team wrote. Because of our breeding choices over time, today’s dogs develop communication skills early on, they believe.

Asked about the statistical significance of the sample, first author Hannah Salomons explains that the sample size is actually quite large in terms of animal cognition studies – the largest quantitative comparison of the cognition of wolves and dogs done to date.

Unrelated work done on the facial expressions of dogs versus wolves, and how we feel about these facial expressions, found a range: dogs generally have “expressive eyebrows” that melt our hearts with one wiggle, while some wolves have such muscles to control eyebrow movement but most don’t seem to. Did we domesticate wolves that had those eyebrow-controlling muscles that wrung our prehistoric hearts? Did we breed the dogs whose foreheads spoke volumes? Who knows. The point is there’s a range, and it bears adding that dogs are not equally observant or complaisant with our whims. Some dogs are cravenly obedient, some “defiant,” which is humanspeak for: “They don’t necessarily do what we tell them.”

The point is that one can wind up with a docile baby wolf or a poodle that’s a total bastard. But the odds are clear, and this study made them clearer.

A captive female wolf acting as a surrogate mother with three orphaned gray wolf pups.Credit: AP

Who’s a good boy

Where and when dogs were domesticated is as hotly debated as whether your canine is a good boy or an inadvertent parasite. A recent theory based on population genetics suggests that wolves were domesticated in Siberia over 23,000 years ago. Some theories place the dog-human relationship much earlier.

What we can say is that when humans crossed the Bering land bridge from Siberia into the Americas over 15,000 years ago, they brought dogs; in prehistoric Jordan, they hunted with dogs (based on indirect evidence of an explosion in dead hares – the thinking is, people had their dogs catch them); prehistoric people in Israel were buried with dogs, indicating a relationship of value, over 12,000 years ago. Prehistoric Saudis had dogs.

Dogs were the only animal known to have been domesticated in the Paleolithic, many thousands of years before people settled down and began to grow food, which is when the cat is thought to have first joined our households.

During this time, dogs seem to have developed “theory of mind” abilities: the mental skill to infer what we are thinking and feeling, in some situations. Our closest relative the chimp cannot do this, the researchers point out. Nor, they show, can the wolf.

A group of golden retriever puppies.Credit: EpicStockMedia / Shutterstock

To make sure the wolves in the study were the real deal, not some hybrid with dogs, the animals were from the Wildlife Science Center in Minnesota and genetically tested. These lupine puppies were raised with plenty of human interaction, the researchers say: Starting mere days after birth, they were raised by hand, fed by hand, slept in their human parent’s bed at night, and received nearly round-the-clock human care from just days after birth.

The dog puppies, on the other hand, hailed from an organization called Canine Companions for Independence and grew up with their doggie mothers and had “less” human contact. So, the two groups are not directly comparable in their early nurture; the wolf babies received more human care than the dog babies. Yet testing showed that the hand-reared wolf pups remained wild and wary, while the puppies behaved as puppies do: irresistibly.

One test involved hiding a treat in one of two bowls, then giving the puppies a clue, by gazing at the appropriate bowl; or placing a small wooden block beside the appropriate bowl. “The results were striking,” the university reports. Seventeen out of 31 dog puppies consistently went to the right bowl. In contrast, none out of 26 human-reared wolf pups did better than a random guess. A lot of the dog puppies got it right at the first attempt, untrained: they just got it, they read the cues, the researchers say.

“As a group, with trials from all individuals of each species analyzed together, dog puppies were significantly better at reading the human gestures than the wolf puppies,” says Salomons, helping interpret the results. “The 17/31 [dog puppies] and 0/26 [wolf puppies] numbers are regarding their performance as individuals: each individual participated in 12 gesture trials (six pointing and six marker). Seventeen of the dog puppies performed significantly above chance, meaning they got at least 10 out of their 12 trials correct. Not a single one of the 26 wolf puppies performed above chance!”

It isn’t about smarts. Dogs are not smarter than wolves, testing has shown. But dogs are a lot better at reading people. And they’re not as wary of us. The dog puppies were 30 times more likely than wolf puppies to approach a stranger, the team writes.

“With the dog puppies we worked with, if you walk into their enclosure, they gather around and want to climb on you and lick your face, whereas most of the wolf puppies run to the corner and hide,” Salomons said.

Actress Sarah Michelle Gellar kissing a puppy.Credit: AP

And there you have it. The wolf does not want to be with you, the doggie does. If the food source is closed off, the dog pup may gaze at you, apparently asking for help; the wolf won’t.

Under another theory of dog domestication, irrespective of location, dogs were domesticated pursuant to sharing our meat scraps with wolves lurking around the cave or campfire, and our prehistoric ancestors developed relationships with the more curious, docile and gregarious of these animals.

Over time, according to this theory, the more audacious and friendly members of the pack would have done better, being fed by complaisant cavepeople, and passed on genetic traits that improved the interspecies communication. Like by wiggling their eyebrows. And thus, the dog became the master of reading you, leading to the popular fallacy that “my dog understands everything I say.”

Dogs understand our gestures, without intensive training. Some do it better than others, but by and large this is why dogs are great service animals, stated lead author Brian Hare: “It is something they are really born prepared to do.”

At least some dogs can follow the cue of pointing a finger: “Crucially, a recent study found that the ability to follow human pointing gestures is highly heritable, and over 40 percent of the variation in this skill is attributable to genetics,” the team writes. This speaks to the power of domestication in shaping the dog’s persona.

It seems the cat can read us too, to some degree, if they’re in the mood. This author has had experience with feral cats following a finger pointing and/or gaze at food placed in an unusual place; and has had experience with housecats who gaze right back at you, briefly, ignore your bid for attention and go to sleep on the keyboard. Cats are an absolute delight, but they are terrible service animals.

At the end of the day, dogs may have been domesticated into having an idea what we are feeling or wish, but having a predator in the house isn’t “safe.” Despite splitting from the wolf possibly as much as 40,000 years ago, any breed of dog can pose a danger. It has been claimed that female dogs especially empathize with the pain and stress of their owners, compared with males. But that may not help if you get stupid drunk and pass out after forgetting to feed the animal. At least if the pain stimulates you to wakefulness, you can gaze into Fido’s eyes and try to convey that he isn’t being a good boy.

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