Archaeologists made a surprising discovery in northern Israel in the late 1970s. They discovered the remains of a woman and a small dog in a 12.000-year-old town where families buried loved ones under their homes. The woman's hand rested on the puppy's chest. This discovery represents some of the earliest examples of the relationship between humans and canine companions, arguably the strongest emotional bond in the animal kingdom. However, despite years of research, scientists do not agree on the exact origins of this relationship.
Did it take a long time for the first dogs to become domesticated and more accustomed to human behavior? Or was this emotional bond also present in the gray wolf, the ancestor of dogs? Our article is about this topic.
Wolves can develop dog-like bonds with humans, according to a new study of young wolves. In some cases, they may even see others as a source of comfort and security.
According to Monique Udell, a human-animal interaction researcher at Oregon State University in Corvallis who was not involved in the research, the findings support the hypothesis that wolves may have some traits previously believed to be unique to dogs. But other experts argue that this cannot be believed because the study was poorly designed.
This new experiment uses the Strange Situation test. It examines how the stress of exposure to an unknown person or environment affects subjects' behavior when they are reunited with their caregivers. It was originally developed to study attachment between human infants and their mothers. A closer bond results from increased interaction.
The team behind the new study initially had to indulge the wolves too much. Because wolves naturally do not want to take part in such experiments. Ten gray wolves were hand-reared at the age of ten days before they could even open their eyes, by behavioral ecologist Christina Hansen Wheat at Stockholm University and her colleagues.
The researchers worked in shifts and were with the puppies 24 hours a day, initially waking up in the middle of the night to bottle-feed them. According to Hansen Wheat, "it was like having ten newborns at once."
The animals were 23 weeks old when a caregiver escorted each to a mostly empty room. The caretaker would periodically leave the room for minutes and come back, sometimes leaving the wolf alone, sometimes with a complete stranger. The experiment was repeated with 23 Alaskan wolves who were 12 weeks old and had been similarly bred since they were puppies.
Researchers often didn't see much difference between wolves and dogs.
Both species scored 4,6 on a five-point scale for "greeting behavior" (the desire to be close to people) when their caregivers entered the room. The team published their findings today in the journal Ecology and Evolution. When the stranger entered, the dogs' greeting behavior decreased to an average of 4,2 and that of the wolves to 3,5; this shows that both animals make a distinction between the person they know and the person they don't know. The team sees this differentiation as a sign of commitment.
During the experiment, both dogs and wolves had more physical contact with their caretakers than strangers.
Also, while the wolves paced at least for part of the test, the dogs barely paced; that was a sign of stress.
That's understandable given that even human-raised wolves are more nervous around humans, according to Udell. Wolves behave the way wolves are expected to behave.
The pacing of the wolves almost completely stopped when a stranger left the room and their caretaker entered. According to Hansen Wheat, wolves had never acted like this before. This may indicate that animals view their raising humans as a “social buffer”—a source of comfort and support.
This is the aspect of the work that interests Udell the most. If true, he claims, "it's not that kind of devotion that separates dogs from wolves." In other words, humans were not required to vaccinate dogs; instead, human selection may have preferred it.
Volta speculates that his experiment suggests that other wild animals may also develop close relationships with humans. He wonders if the zoo hand-reared cheetah sees its keeper as merely a source of food or comfort. These links may exist even if we are not aware of them.
Not everyone is convinced. According to Márta Gácsi, an ethologist at Eötvös Loránd University who helped develop the Strange Situation test for dogs and wolves in 2005, the results don't match what her team observed. Gácsi and colleagues found that there were clear distinctions between wolves and dogs, paying little attention to the distinction between wolves' keepers and strangers.
These findings led him and others to the conclusion that wolves lack the capacity to associate with certain humans.
According to Gácsi, the new study suggests that animals are familiar with the experimental room and not so "weird" to elicit an attachment response; it has a number of methodological flaws, such as all dogs being the same breed and wolves not quick enough to say anything about what this behavior means. He admits that it is impossible to draw reliable conclusions from the study.
Hansen Wheat claims not to make a comparison between dogs and wolves. He claims we're still discussing wild creatures.
As far as we have observed, they are not dogs,
However, he claims that even the slightest evidence of wolves' attachment behavior points to the existence of similar behavior in early dog ancestors. According to him, this may be the seed we have chosen, and it may have grown stronger through the ages. (It is possible that something similar applies to the catching capacity of dogs).
According to Hansen Wheat, the key to understanding what happened during the domestication of dogs is to focus on their similarities. The question we should be asking is, “How do they look alike?” “It should,” he adds. “I am often asked how wolves and dogs differ. "That's the key to understanding how we make the dog," he said.