On Why Dogs Want to Lick Us And Wolves Want to Eat Us

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Why are dogs our best pals and wolves our competitors?

It’s clear that the dogs we know and love are very distinct from wolves. Aside from variations in their genetic code, the way dogs interact with and behave around us humans is very different from the behavior of typical wolves, even if the dogs and wolves are raised in similar conditions. In particular, the special relationship dogs have with us is because the success of dogs as a species relies heavily on humans.

Researchers from Eötvös University in Hungary performed two studies that compared the behavior of dogs and wolves and their relationship with humans.

Study on Attachment

In the first study, the researchers compared attachment levels to humans in three groups: pet dog puppies, hand-raised wolf cubs, and hand-raised dog puppies. The hand-raised animals spent 24 hours a day with their human, while the pet dog puppies were occasionally left by themselves.

This study on attachment levels found that pet dogs and hand-reared dogs behaved in similar ways, and wolves behaved differently from these two groups. For example, the two groups of dog puppies were much more responsive to their owner than to an unfamiliar human, while the socialized wolves did not make this distinction. This means that dogs differentiate between their owners and other people, and treat them differently, while wolves do not. This shows that dogs experience a level of attachment to their owners that wolves do not achieve, and is significant because it also means that dogs can readily differentiate between individuals of another species. Both groups of dogs also spent more time than wolves standing by the door when their owners were absent. Lastly, this study found that dogs greeted their owners more intensely than the strangers while wolves greeted everyone with equal intensity.

Study on Communication

In the second study, the researchers explored whether dogs and wolves would rely on human cues or otherwise seek help from humans when trying to solve an impossible task.

The second study was designed to compare how dogs and wolves communicate and interact with humans. The dogs and wolves used in this experiment had been socialized to humans at comparable levels. Dogs and wolves were both trained to solve a simple task, and were then presented with an unsolvable version of the same task. The researchers found something very interesting: dogs looked to the human when they realized they couldn’t solve the task, while wolves did not! Based off of this finding, the researchers concluded that preferential looking at humans seems to be an evolved behavior specifically in dogs because while dogs did this naturally, it was difficult to induce this behavior in wolves even after intensive socialization.

What The Studies Suggest

Evidence from studies like the two mentioned above show that even though wolves are dogs’ closest relatives, the two species are very different from each other. Dogs have a long history of adaptation to a human environment, and it is suggested that the evolutionary selection process during domestication altered their behavior and behavior control systems in addition to their morphological traits. Over time, dogs evolved in a way so that the majority of the population would possess traits that would benefit humans. These studies provide evidence that specific genetic changes might have been associated with the emergence of attachment behavior in dogs. In fact, dogs are unusually competent in social interactions with humans, and possess special abilities in cooperation, social learning, and communication with people. Dogs have the unique ability to look at and read the human face, and while wolves tend to become attached to a pack instead of to a certain individual, dogs develop special relationships with the people most responsible for their care. It is clear that when dogs diverged from wolves, they evolved in a way to become man’s best friend.

The Research:

Miklósi, Ádám, Enikö Kubinyi, József Topál, Márta Gácsi, Zsófia Virányi, and Vilmos Csányi. “A Simple Reason for a Big Difference: Wolves Do Not Look Back at Humans, but Dogs Do.” Current Biology 13, no. 9 (April 29, 2003): 763–66. doi:10.1016/S0960-9822(03)00263-X.

Topál, József, Márta Gácsi, Ádám Miklósi, Zsófia Virányi, Enikő Kubinyi, and Vilmos Csányi. “Attachment to Humans: A Comparative Study on Hand-Reared Wolves and Differently Socialized Dog Puppies.” Animal Behaviour 70, no. 6 (December 2005): 1367–75. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2005.03.025.

Vilà, Carles, Peter Savolainen, Jesus E. Maldonado, Isabel R. Amorim, John E. Rice, Rodney L. Honeycutt, Keith A. Crandall, Joakim Lundeberg, and Robert K. Wayne. “Multiple and Ancient Origins of the Domestic Dog.” Science 276, no. 5319 (1997): 1687–89.