Note from Con Slobodchikoff: This is a guest post from Dr. Adam Miklosi, who has been researching the comparative behavior of dogs and wolves. Dr. Miklosi's recent extensive and informative book, "Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition (Oxford University Press), is available through Amazon.
Researchers know two sorts of facts. First, there was a time when dogs did not exist, but only wolf-like creatures lived across the Northern Hemisphere. Second, relatively suddenly (in terms of an evolutionary time scale) a very similar type of animal emerged that was usually found in association with humans: the dog.
In recent times geneticists have established that the dog’s closest living relative is the wolf, and zoo-archaeologists date the dog-like animals from about 17,000 BP. All the rest is still a mater of debate, including the exact date and the location of domestication, and whether dogs domesticated themselves by joining human groups, and to what extent humans played an active role in “selecting” for certain types with regard to form and behavior.
In recent years there has been a huge interest in the behavior of dogs, and that has included comparative studies that were aimed at looking at dog-wolf differences. Frank (1980) and his colleagues were the first who suggested that dogs and wolves differ in the way that they process environmental information. According to them, wolves are more bound to certain type of stimuli for any behavioral response, but at the same time they are able to show flexible problem solving behavior. In contrast, dogs lack complex problem solving skills but they can learn in very flexible ways about the connection between arbitrary stimuli (e.g. Sit!) and some action (Bottom touches ground). Although Frank’s ideas were very interesting, he worked with very few animals, did not account for differences in socialization, and utilized a very restricted experimental methodology.
The main problem is that it is easy to find behavioral difference between dogs and wolves, but an ethologist looks for the origin of these differences. Living in a different physical and social environment makes it more than likely that the two species will display divergent skills. Since dogs look very different from wolves, most researchers agree that domestication of dogs was accompanied by some genetic changes, but what is so obvious in morphology is much more difficult to be revealed in the case of behavior.
Most comparative behavioral research assumes that dogs have been selected to live in close association with humans. In other words, dogs had a greater chance to survive in the human (anthropogenic) environment if they acquired human-like social skills. If one wants to understand more about the genetic underpinning of these skills, one way to reveal them is to perform experiments on dogs and wolves that are raised in similar social environments. Our research group at the Eötvös Loránd University was the first one that raised many dog and wolf pups individually in the same way by a human caretaker (one caretaker lived with only one pup at the same time) with the intent to start a comparative research program.
At present there are two main theories that try to account for behavioral differences between dogs and wolves: selection for cognitive skills, and changes in behavior. If dogs lived for long enough in human society, then selection could have changed their cognitive skills markedly. For example, researchers found that dogs showed high level performance in communicative tasks when they had to find a piece of hidden food on the basis of human gestures. Since wolves were not very successful at this task, in contrast to dog puppies without much human experience, researchers assumed that dogs might have gained some genetic advantage during domestication that affected directly their social cognitive skills.
However, there is also an alternative way to explain this. In order to be successful in a communicative task, not only cognitive skills are important, but also changes in other behaviors. To be a successful companion to a human, a dog has to stand or sit quietly for a few seconds, it should look at the person in order to see the communicative action (gesture), it should allow itself to be controlled by a signal from the other instead of making its own decision, etc. This means that changes in other aspects of behavior like attention span, interest in humans, or temperament could also improve performance, and one does not need to assume that the core-system of social cognition is affected. Thus dogs might be very similar to wolves with regard to cognitive skills in general but in certain tasks they have a better chance to reveal those cognitive skills because of changes in other behavior systems.
In our research program we emphasize dog-human parallels in behavior, assuming not only that the human environment selected for some particular social skills in dogs, but actually, that in functional terms (what is the outcome of the behavior) dog and human behavior shares similar features. Over the years we have collected some evidence for this view by studying various aspects of social behavior in dogs and humans in parallel. In comparative experiments we have found that 4-month-old dogs show attachment behavior toward their human caretaker, which is not the case in socialized wolves. Similar direction of difference was revealed in the case of communication abilities. Dogs proved to be more skilled at an earlier age than wolves in comprehending human gestures, and they also seem to be relatively flexible in utilizing unfamiliar gestural signals. In both cases dogs share many features of their social behavior with human infants. This means that from a functional perspective dogs can be compared to 1.5-2-year-old infants, depending on the task. However, we do not claim that necessarily similar mental mechanisms are at work in these two species. Some of the mechanisms might overlap since both species (dog and human) share a common mammalian heritage and the ability to live in social groups but it is also very likely that human evolution endowed us with some special skills which are not present in dogs.
The increased flexibility in emotional behavior in dogs might also have contributed the success of dogs in the human community. Although it has been paid little attention, dogs and wolves have similarly complex emotional behavior; however, in the case of dogs the possible behavioral combinations are larger. Barking is an obvious example for this. Both wolves and dogs bark, but in wolves barking is used mostly as a “warning” signal. In contrast, dogs utilize barking in a wide range of contexts, including fear, aggression and play. Moreover, humans are quite skilled in discriminating these barking sounds. Considering that we can also use our vocal behavior to modify the behavior of the dogs, it seems that dogs and humans have evolved a novel communicative “channel” for interaction.
Personality is another interesting aspect of dog behavior in which human parallels might be possible. Interacting individuals living in the same social group may be at an advantage if the range of their personalities overlaps. Dogs and humans might share some personality traits which facilitate their interaction within a group. Interaction with wolves depends in most cases on the skill of the human to adapt to the “needs” of the individual animal, while with dogs, relationships can be based on mutual acclimatization. At the moment we do not know how dogs and humans affect each other’s personality, but the possibility of such an influence is much greater than in the case of wolves.