Our research approach

Intelligence and social behaviour of wolves and dogs

At the Wolf Science Center we explore the mutuality between wolves, dogs and humans. Our wolves and dogs are hand raised by WSC scientists and trainers and take regularly part in testing their cooperative and cognitive abilities in a variety of tasks and paradigms. In that way we can work together in a close and trustful relationship with the animal, find out more about how the relate to their environment and keep them physically and mentally healthy.
This general approach makes us worldwide unique as a research institution.  

Forschung am WSC

An informed view of wolves and of the human-dog companionship becomes increasingly important for human societies. For example, finding out in what ways domestication made dogs different from their wolf ancestors is an extremely worthy field of research, because we still do not really know, why exactly the wolf – and not one of the many other candidate animals in the early Paleolithic – developed into  our closest animal companion.

The long term relationship might originate in the similar life style of the two species. Both are ecologically very similarly oriented hunters and scavengers. Humans and wolves cooperate with their clan members very well and in complex ways, when it comes to hunting, caring for the young but also in defending their territory against neighbours. 

Many people are eager to understand, why and how wolves turned into dogs and why especially dogs became such close companions of humans. 

Our research with wolves, dogs and their human partners is intended to provide answers, but also continues to generate new questions. 

Our main questions are: 

  • Do the ancient traits of the ancestral wolves in our dogs enable them to cooperate closely with us? Or are new abilities which dogs gained through domestication responsible for their special sociability with humans? Or were the old wolf abilities honed by domestication to meet the needs of the new human partners?
  • In what ways and how much do dogs differ from wolves and what do they still have in common? This is not only the question for the effects of domestication; as humans produced the relevant selection pressures, the wolf-dog differences also mirror much of the human nature and needs. So this is learning more about us via such kind of wolf-dog research.
  • How do mental, cognitive and cooperative abilities of dogs and wolves differ, depending on the social relationship they have with each other or with human partners? 
  • And how much does the relationship between dogs and humans depend on early socialisation and training of the dogs and on social abilities of the human partners?
  • Which attitudes do humans have towards wolves in comparison to dogs? And why are wolves more than other such prominent targets of positive, but also negative attitudes and projections?

If you want to find out more about our current research topics, please click here

To find out, which differences between wolves and dogs have a genetic basis, it is crucial for our research that all our animals have made similar experiences over their individual lifetimes. We do not want to compare apples and pears. A pet dog  being together with its owner most of the time, maybe even sleeping in the owner’s bed, has made different social and mental abilities than a captive wolf in an enclosure, even if hand raised. As it would be inappropriate to keep wolves in similar private settings as it is common for dogs, we adjusted the raising and keeping of our research dogs to what is possible in the wolves. 

Therefore it is very important for our research to make sure that the WSC dogs make the same experiences and are trained the same way as our wolves.

In our research we need to collaborate with animals, which are relaxed in the presence of humans, i.e. neither are fearful, nor integrate them too tightly in their social affairs. We want to consider us friendly cooperation partners. Not less, but also not more. This seems to work well with our kind of friendly rearing and respectfully interacting. Only in this state they can focus on their tasks and show their full cognitive and mental potentials.

As wolves are naturally shy of people, WSC scientists together with WSC animal trainers hand raise wolf and dog pups alike. Wolf pups open their eyes after their 12th day of life. To achieve a trustful relationship, hand raising has therefore to start at day 10 or sooner. During the raising period, humans interact exclusively positively with them in a cooperative way; they are never punished or dominated. Both, wolf and dog puppies have regular contact with our well socialized private dogs and are regularly visited by our adult WSC wolves or dogs. WSC wolves and WSC dogs do not get in contact with each other, neither during raising nor after. Starting with the age of five months, the wolf puppies are integrated into our existing wolf packs. Mostly, but not always this works well, our animal partners have the last say in this. 

Hand raising also helps our wolves coping well with the conditions in the park: they generally remain relaxed even at the presence of unknown people visiting them in their packs (in the company of experienced WSC personnel), visitors observing them from outside the enclosure, noisy children or leased dogs.

Of course, our research dogs would not have to be hand raised for any of the reasons mentioned for the wolves. But for the sake of a “fair” comparison between wolves and dogs, we try to treat our animals the same way. Therefore, also all our dog puppies are hand-raised very much the same way than our wolves. 

Before we started the WSC, experienced wolf keepers indicated to us that Canadian Gray Wolves are more easily kept in captivity and less shy of humans, than the European Gray Wolves would be. As our wolves are working closely together with humans, we decided to keep that subspecies, with very satisfying results for science and hopefully, also for our wolf partners.

Our wolves come from zoos and game parks in Canada, US, Russia, Austria, Switzerland and Germany. We only take two puppies from any litter, are careful to avoid inbred lines and appreciate a broad representation of wolf genes in our experimental animals, hence we got them from a range of sources. For including a possible maximum of dog genes in our population, we raise and keep only mongrels. Our first dog puppies came to the WSC from Hungarian dog shelters and actually, we saved the lives of a fair number of them. A second group of dog pups was born from our own females, a few years later, sired by “Canadian huskies” (i.e. mongrels bred for dog sledge racing).

 

 

There is currently a lively discussion regarding free-living wolves in Austria and in Europe.

Although the WSC is focused on basic research, we are still approached with a range of questions. We generally refer to the valid Austrian policy paper on wolf management, issued by the “Austrian coordination office for the brown bear, lynx and wolf”: Wolf management in Austria. Basics and recommendations. Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna (2012). You can download the document here.

For further questions regarding the free-living wolves, please contact Dr. Georg Rauer (Wolf Commissioner; Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology): georg.rauer@fiwi.at.

If you want to find out more about the research at the Wolf Science Center, the training and the upraisal of our animals, you can join one of our tours or other visitor programs. Here you can find more information. 

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