Wolves are More Prosocial than Dogs, New Study Finds

In touchscreen experiments that allowed animals to provide food to others, wolves (Canis lupus) acted more prosocially toward their pack members than did pack dogs (Canis lupus familiaris).

While wolves rely heavily on cooperation, dogs do so substantially less thus leading to the prediction that wolves are more prosocial than dogs. However, domestication hypotheses suggest dogs have been selected for higher cooperation, leading to the opposing prediction -- increased prosocial tendencies in dogs. To tease apart these hypotheses, Dale et al adapted a paradigm previously used with pet dogs to directly compare dogs and wolves. In a prosocial choice task, wolves acted prosocially to in-group partners; providing significantly more food to a pack-member compared to a control where the partner had no access to the food. Dogs did not. Additionally, wolves did not show a prosocial response to non-pack members, in line with previous research that social relationships are important for prosociality. Image credit: Dale et al, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0215444.

While wolves rely heavily on cooperation, dogs do so substantially less thus leading to the prediction that wolves are more prosocial than dogs. However, domestication hypotheses suggest dogs have been selected for higher cooperation, leading to the opposing prediction — increased prosocial tendencies in dogs. To tease apart these hypotheses, Dale et al adapted a paradigm previously used with pet dogs to directly compare dogs and wolves. In a prosocial choice task, wolves acted prosocially to in-group partners; providing significantly more food to a pack-member compared to a control where the partner had no access to the food. Dogs did not. Additionally, wolves did not show a prosocial response to non-pack members, in line with previous research that social relationships are important for prosociality. Image credit: Dale et al, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0215444.

Prosocial behaviors — actions intended to benefit others — are important for initiating cooperation.

Some scientists hypothesize that dog domestication has selected for cooperative tendencies, suggesting that dogs should be more prosocial than their closest living relatives, wolves. Competing hypotheses hold that prosocial behaviors observed in pet dogs arose from ancestral traits, and since wolves rely heavily on cooperation, they should be more prosocial than dogs.

To explore these hypotheses, University of Veterinary Medicine researcher Rachel Dale and colleagues compared prosocial tendencies between nine wolves and six dogs raised and living in packs at the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, Austria.

The scientists trained each animal to use its nose to press a ‘giving’ symbol on a touchscreen in order to deliver food to an adjacent enclosure, where another animal of the same species may or may not be present.

Over multiple trials, the wolves opted to deliver significantly more food to the adjacent enclosure when it held a member of their own pack than when the same pack member was nearby but in a different enclosure.

When the task was repeated with two wolves from different packs, there was no difference in the amount of food delivered to the adjacent enclosure when it was occupied by the other wolf than when the other wolf was merely nearby.

In contrast, the dogs delivered no more food to the adjacent enclosure when it was occupied by a pack member than when the pack member was merely nearby.

These findings suggest that wolves are more prosocial than dogs raised in similar pack conditions, supporting hypotheses that prosocial behaviors seen in pet dogs can be traced to ancestral traits.

“Our study shows that domestication did not necessarily make dogs more prosocial,” Dr. Dale said.

“Rather, it seems that tolerance and generosity towards group members help to produce high levels of cooperation, as seen in wolves.”

The study appears in the journal PLoS ONE.

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R. Dale et al. 2019. Wolves, but not dogs, are prosocial in a touch screen task. PLoS ONE 14 (5): e0215444; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0215444

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