A Wolf Puppy Will Never Understand You Like Your Dog

Dog puppies are twice as likely to pick up on human cues than wolf puppies.

Baby wolf pups
Even raised with humans, wolf pups are more afraid than dog puppies. Jim Austin Jimages Digital Photography / Getty Images

Point to a ball and your dog runs and fetches it. Or gesture toward a piece of popcorn you dropped and your pup goes and snaps it up.

These might not seem like a big deal. Of course your dog gets you. But no other animal has the cooperative communication skills to understand complex human gestures as dogs do. Chimpanzees, the closest human relatives, aren’t able to do it. And dogs' closest relative, the wolf, can't either, a new study finds.

For their work, researchers at Duke University studied a group of dog puppies and a group of wolf puppies, raising them in strikingly different ways. They gave the wolves a more traditional puppy-like experience while the puppies had less human interaction than usual.

They compared 44 dog and 37 wolf puppies between the ages of 5 and 18 weeks old.

Located at the Wildlife Science Center in Minnesota, the wolf puppies were first tested to make sure they weren’t dog-wolf hybrids. They were raised with nearly constant human attention from the time they were born. They were fed by hand and even slept with someone at night.

By contrast, most of the dog puppies were service dogs in training from Canine Companion for Independence (CCI) in Santa Rosa, California. They were all Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, or mixes of the two breeds. Although they were around people, they had less interaction with humans than the wolves did.

“We raised the puppies differently to address the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate surrounding dogs’ unusually high skills when it comes to understanding human communication. Are they better at it than most other animals because they have typically spent much more time with humans and had lots of opportunities to learn what a gesture, like a point, means by trial and error? Or is it more like the communicative abilities of human babies—a skill that naturally develops and doesn’t require extensive training or experience?” first author Hannah Salomons, a doctoral student studying social cognition at Duke University, explains to Treehugger.

“To see whether dogs’ skills emerged through the process of domestication, or are simply learned by spending time with people, we raised the puppies in the reverse situations—we gave the wolves extensive experience with people, even more than most dog puppies typically get, while we raised the dog puppies without this intense human exposure.”

Researchers tested both sets of canines with a number of tasks.

In one test, researchers hid a treat in one of two bowls then pointed to and looked at the spot where the food was hidden. In other trials, they placed a small wooden block next to the bowl where the treat was hidden. None of the puppies knew what they were supposed to do, but some figured it out more quickly than others.

The dog puppies were twice as likely to understand where to go to find the surprise treat than the wolf puppies even though they had significantly less interaction with people.

Seventeen out of 31 dog pups repeatedly chose the right bowl. However, none of the 26 wolf puppies did more than guess randomly. And in control trials, the researchers made sure that the puppies weren't able to sniff to find the food.

The results were published in the journal Current Biology.

Not a Matter of Intelligence

Although on the surface it might seem that the dog puppies were just smarter than the wolves, the test wasn’t about which species was more intelligent, Salomons says.

“Even in humans, there is no one way to define ‘intelligence’—there are many different ways to be ‘smart,’ and the same goes for animals,” she says. “This study shows that in the arena of understanding humans’ attempts to cooperate and communicate with them, dogs excel over wolves. However, there are sure to be other types of problem-solving where wolves are better than dogs!”

In other tests, they found that the dog puppies were 30 times more likely than the wolf puppies to approach a stranger.

“The wolf puppies were much more shy, especially with strangers! They showed less interest in humans in general, even people with whom they were familiar and comfortable,” Salomons says. “The dog puppies, on the other hand, were much more likely to approach and touch a person, regardless of whether they were a stranger or a known friend.”

When shown food that they couldn’t immediately reach, the wolf puppies were more likely to try to figure out how to get it on their own, while the dogs would often turn to the humans for assistance.

The researchers say these results test what’s known as the domestication hypothesis. The thought is that tens of thousands of years ago, only the friendliest wolves got close enough to humans to scavenge on leftovers. Those friendly wolves survived, passing on the genes that made them more agreeable and less fearful and shy.

Salomons explains, “Our results suggest that the selection for a friendly temperament towards people, through the process of domestication, led to changes in dogs’ development, allowing them to express the social skills they inherited from their common ancestor with wolves in new ways towards people, and causing these cooperative communicative skills to begin to emerge early, at just a few weeks of age."

View Article Sources
  1. Salomons, Hannah, et al. "Cooperative Communication with Humans Evolved to Emerge Early in Domestic Dogs." Current Biology, 2021, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2021.06.051