Current research projects

Important questions:

Why do wolves cooperate and how cooperative are dogs?

In what ways are dogs different from wolves?

Did the hormone-behaviour interactions of dogs change through domestication?

How do dogs, as compared to wolves, respond physiologically and behaviourally to challenges?

Are wolves indeed more determined and socially more independent than dogs?
 

 

 

Many hypotheses have suggested that during domestication dogs have become more tolerant and cooperative both towards humans and conspecifics, yet if we compare what is known of wild wolves’ and free-ranging dogs’ social ecology, we may come to opposite predictions. Wolves depend on cooperative hunting and breeding, with all pack members feeding the young each year, whereas free-ranging dogs show little allomaternal care and depend mostly on solitary scavenging. This change in their socio-ecology may have resulted in a loss of abilities to cooperate with each other.

The ERC-cancoop project has been testing these ideas, comparing intra- and inter- cooperation, but also tolerance around food, inequity aversion and prosocial behaviours in wolves and dogs at the Wolf Science Center.

We have found that wolves are more successful at cooperating with conspecifics than dogs in a string-pulling task, although in both species cooperation is easier amongst closely bonded partners (link to publication). Wolves are also more tolerant around a food source such as a carcass than dogs (link to publication). In fact whereas in wolves the subordinate individual will also get a piece of the carcass, in dogs, subordinates try to avoid conflicts and don’t even come close. Although when it comes to food-sharing, the social bond is also important, with more closely affiliated partners tolerating each other more around food. Both wolves and dogs respond equally negatively to unequal treatment (link to publication) when a human asks them to do something but rewards one partner more than the other, but in this case rank also plays a role, with more dominant animals reacting more strongly to unequal treatment than subordinate ones.

Taken together the results from these studies suggest that cooperativeness and its correlates play a major role in wolves’ lives, and that during domestication some of these abilities or motivational factors in particular in relation to conspecifics may have been lost. We suggest that these results highlight the importance of taking the species’ socio-ecology into account and future studies should consider extending research also to free-ranging populations as much as possible.

 

Domestication has led dogs to differ from wolves in a mosaic of mental, physiological and behavioural parameters which are observed in their reactions to the environment. Although the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the primary substrate, for example, of the known stress coping strategies and is involved in regulating affective states, its modulation relative to specific contexts  has not been investigated in wolves and dogs.

In a previous study we found differences in wolves’ and dogs’ ANS activity using cardiac parameters: wolves were more reactive (higher HRV) than dogs but dogs have a higher baseline activity (higher HR, lower HRV) than wolves. The aim of this project is to elucidate the impact of domestication on ANS modulation as related to the affective states in different situations and contexts.

 

Reputation is a key component in social interactions of group living animals and may be important for cooperation. It can be formed through direct or indirect experience (i.e., eavesdropping).

In this project we investigate whether wolves and dogs take the prior actions of potential partners (human and conspecific) with a third party into account when interacting with them. The experimental studies will be mainly carried out at the WSC, but also at the Clever Dog Lab, Vienna, to make comparisons between dogs raised and living in different environments. This will enable the testing of various domestication hypotheses predicting differential behaviours of wolves and dogs in such social skills, and the findings may further our understanding of dog domestication and the evolution of cooperation.

Humans and dogs share a long history of mutual companionship, cooperation, and possibly, co-evolution. Based on findings that a certain neurohormone, namely oxytocin, plays a crucial role in social bond formation, cooperative behaviours, and affiliative interactions, we investigate the relationships of dogs and wolves with human partners using behavioural and hormonal measures.

We hypothesise that the oxytocin system changed over the course of domestication and therefore expect to find differences when comparing wolves and dogs in various experimental paradigms.

 

The aim of the project is to investigate the effects of domestication and human socialisation on problem solving abilities of dogs, adopting a comparative approach across closely related species such as dogs and wolves and groups of dogs with different social experiences.

Through socio-cognitive tasks and physical cognition tasks it investigates:

1. whether domestication has affected dogs’ skills both in the socio-cognitive and physical domain, by comparing wolves and dogs raised in the same manner at the WSC (Wolf Science Center, Ernstbrunn, Austria).

2. To what extent these skills are affected by dogs’ social experience with humans, by comparing dogs differing on this factor: i.e. pet dogs living constantly with their human partners, WSC dogs with daily contact with humans but living in packs, and free-ranging dogs that are unrestricted and independent from humans.

 

The Wolf Science Center operates one of the largest treadmills worldwide; 10m long and 2.5m wide. It is specifically designed to allow an entire pack of wolves or dogs on it, or wolves and dogs together with human partners. But of course, also single wolves or dogs can use it.

At the moment, we are in the training phase but are already taking data. Wolves and dogs are being trained to trot on the treadmill. The animals may learn to do this in a few months, in some it takes more than a year. This gives us the unique opportunity to study the physiology and behaviour of our animals in training. We plan to study questions such as how social relationships influence whether or not canines engage in joint running, how cooperative they are running with human partners, but also other topics, such as the energetics of running in these specialized, "hypercursorial" social hunters.

 

In this study wolves and dogs learn to associate two different symbols with either two equal rewards (two pieces of dry food) or two rewards of different value (dry food and meat). The two rewards are delivered in two adjacent compartments outside of the touchscreen room.

As most of our animals have a preference for meat over dry food, after some training, they should prefer the “dry food and meat symbol” over the “dry food and dry food symbol”. In the test, the door between the two reward compartments is closed and the animal no longer has access to the second reward. Instead, a partner animal is in this compartment receiving the dry food or meat. This means that in the test, the choice for the actor animal does not make a difference for them because he/she is only receiving dry food. Only the outcome of the partner varies.

Our idea is that animals should decrease their meat preference more in a social than in a non-social control condition to avoid being relatively disadvantaged compared to a partner.

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