Cognitive tools and emotional context in the development of canine cooperation

Friederike Range & Zsófia Virányi

Cooperation is a fundamental aspect of human societies and has triggered much research in economics and psychology. Although it is clear that human collaborative skills are exceptional, comparisons with animal species may reveal the evolutionary origins and the functional relevance of cooperation. Moreover, they provide us with the opportunity to understand the proximate mechanisms and the development of cooperation in ontogeny. Thus, to gain a full insight into the ultimate and proximate processes as well as into the development of cooperation, the main objective of our project is to investigate these aspects of cooperation in an integrative model.

Cooperation is at the core of the canine social organization, thus making wolf packs and domestic dogs the ideal model system to analyze cooperation with conspecific and human partners. We plan to establish 2 groups of wolves (total of 16-20) and two groups of domestic dogs (total of 20), which will be raised in peer groups by human hand-raiser.

The evolutionary background shall be explored through the comparison of cooperation in wolf- and dog-groups raised the same way.  We expect that wolves rather than dogs will readily and skilfully cooperate among themselves, but that dogs will be better than wolves cooperating with humans. Through controlled hand-raising and cognitive tasks, the animals’ emotional and cognitive development will be systematically followed and explored.

We will investigate the emotional development by observing the establishment and dynamics of social relationships and by repeatedly conducting a range of tests in the social domain (social reference and social attraction) as well as in the physical domain (subjects’ neophobic reactions towards novel objects and their motivational background). Complementary physiological measurements (e.g. cortical levels from saliva samples) will be taken throughout the tests to get an independent measurement of the acute stress of the animals and of its personality.

The development of cognitive abilitiespresumably underlying cooperation will be analyzed repeatedly by testing gaze-following, social attention as well as means-end understanding and size/number discrimination.

In adulthood the cooperative potential of canine-canine and human-canine dyads will be tested in a social facilitation tasks where animals can cooperatively overcome neophobia and with a well-established string-pulling task. The two different cooperation tasks allow for investigating the interplay with proximate mechanisms by varying whether the causal structure of the problem to be solved cooperatively is opaque or transparent (cognitive understanding) or whether the partner to interact with is preferred or not (emotional attitude).