Understanding the proximate mechanisms of canine cooperation

Friederike Range

Social canines are renown for their cooperation in regard to breeding, hunting, territorial defense (e.g. wolves) as well as interactions with humans (domestic dogs). Moreover, although wolves and dogs are closely related, they are adapted to very different environments. Wolves live as a family unit and cooperate with each other similar to humans in early hunter-gatherer societies, whereas dogs are domesticated and live as a member of human families in our modern society. These aspects make canines the ideal non-primate model to elucidate the evolutionary origins and the functional relevance of mechanisms involved in cooperation.

Nevertheless, compared to primates, very little is known about the proximate mechanisms underlying canine cooperation. Here, I propose a series of experiments in wolves (N = 20) and identically raised and kept dogs (N= 18) that will focus on cognitive processes that are closely embedded in the emotional system and thought to be involved in triggering, maintaining and regulating primate cooperation. While empathy, social tolerance and between-group competition have been proposed to trigger human cooperation, inequity aversion, intolerance and within-group competition is likely to constrain cooperation.

In the first part of the project, we will try to understand some of these processes at the individual and relationship level both with conspecific and human partners, while in the second part of the project, we will elucidate how they influence partner choice and cooperative interactions when including all pack members and within- as well as between-group competition becomes an issue.

Accordingly, in the first part we will test if wolves and dogs show pro-social tendencies and react towards unequal reward distributions both when confronted with conspecifics and human partners. Here we will use experimental paradigms with increasing complexity to probe the cognitive and emotional limits of the animals. The influence of the quality of the relationship on the subject’s reactions towards its partner will be elucidated. Another factor - probably very influential in animal cooperation - is inhibitory control, which will be tested with two different paradigms.

In the second part of this project, we will investigate the cooperative performance of the same animals in repeated sessions when they are free to choose or change their partners. Using social network theory, we will integrate the knowledge about animals’ emotional tendencies (provided by the first part of this project) as well as their cognitive abilities e.g. gaze-following, causal understanding (provided by a project currently running) to model cooperative interactions of wolves and dogs. The predictions derived from the model will be tested with the data collected in the second part of this project.