The wolf is, so to speak, the wild reflection of our domestic dogs. Because their story began when people in Europe and East Asia began to tame and breed wolves around 15, 000 years ago. Since then, dogs have been our closest companions, adapting to human life in many ways. Not only do dogs understand many words of our speech and our gestures, they can also read our mood from our tone of voice and facial expression. Over the millennia, however, the domesticated descendants of wolves have lost some of their skills: they are less able to distinguish quantities than wolves, are more authoritarian, and fail faster if they are to solve a problem independently, as experiments show. While wolves play around until a task is mastered, dogs quickly give up - and instead look to their human for help.
Dogs and wolves are given the choice
Sarah Marshall-Pescini from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna and her colleagues have now examined and compared another aspect of the behavior of dogs and wolves: the willingness to take risks. For the experiment, they trained seven wolves and seven dogs to choose between two feeding options. These were hidden under two upturned bowls and were not revealed until the animal had made his choice by snouting or pawing. Under one of the two bowls hid the "safe" option: a rather fad-tasting food chunk, which was always available. The other bowl, however, was associated with a risk: either it was a non-edible stone underneath or a tasty dog treats - the chance for it was 50:50. In the experiment, the dogs and wolves knew which bowl represented safety and which risk, but not whether the "risk bowl" contained a treat or a stone.
As it turned out, the dog and wolf behave differently in this situation: "We have found that wolves prefer the risky option much more often than the dogs, " says Marshall-Pescini. In about 80 percent of the rounds, the wolves opted for the "risk bowl", with the dogs it was only about half. The domesticated descendants of the wolf are therefore much more risk-averse than their wild relatives - and are more similar in this capacity to us humans.
The reason for these differences, the researchers see in the lifestyle and especially the food strategy of dog and wolf. "Wolves hunt large ungulates, " explains Marshall-Pescini. "This is a risky strategy because the hunt often fails and the prey can fight back." Nevertheless, the wolves must take this risk if they want to get enough food. Risk taking is therefore part of their survival strategy. In contrast to the dogs: When they started to live in the environment of humans, they were no longer dependent on hunting. Instead, they ate most of what people gave them or what was left over from their meals. "This is a ubiquitous and almost unlimited food source, " says Marshall-Pescini. "Dogs therefore did not have to take any risks to find food." Over time, dogs lost their wolfish preference for risky options and instead preferred to play it safe. display
- Sarah Marshall-Pescini (University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna) et al., Frontiers in Psychology, doi: 10.3389 / fpsyg.2016.01241