The Cognitive Development Center visited VetMed University’s Wolf Science Center at the Game Park of Ernstbrunn in April. This famous research facility, located near Vienna, offers a unique opportunity to comparative researchers: the Center’s wolves and dogs are hand-raised under very similar conditions and socialized to trust and cooperate with their human keepers. The comparable living conditions provide an optimal foundation for studying the similarities and differences between the two species, targeting situations that range from individual problem solving to collaboration with conspecifics, which can also give us a better understanding of the human-dog-coevolution.
Some of their findings are truly extraordinary and speak about the different consequences of domestication. Dogs are well known for their efficient cooperative interactions with humans, and it is usually hypothesized that they were selected because of enhanced cooperative inclinations. However, in contrast, it was found that when dogs had to cooperate with a conspecific, for instance,
when their access to a reward depended on the simultaneous pulling of two ropes together with another dog, two wolves coordinated better with each other than two dogs.
Surprisingly, wolves also seem to be better social learners than dogs already at an early age. In a different study, 6-month-old wolves and dogs were exposed to different problem-solving strategies performed by a conspecific: they saw that an adult animal opened a novel box either by using her paw or her mouth to reach a food reward.
The researchers found that wolves are better than dogs in matching their behaviour to the examples used in the demonstration achieving at the end a higher problem-solving performance.
As senior researcher, Zsófia Virányi, who is also one of the founders of the Wolf Science Center explained to the CEU guests, the facility is not only committed to research excellence, but also to animal welfare. Wolves are typically shy and scared of humans, so one of the biggest challenges for WSC’s trainers is to make them feel safe in human company. To achieve this, the trainers hand-raise the puppies for the first five months of their lives – they even move into the Center to live together with the animals and constantly maintain close contact with them. The wolves and dogs are kept in small packs, also building close relationships with their conspecifics.
CDC members also observed the regular training the wolves receive to make them familiar and comfortable with a range of testing situations from learning different tasks to saliva sample collections. WSC’s trainers emphasized that taking part in studies is always voluntary: animals are rewarded for cooperation, but never forced into it.
The Wolf Science Center welcomes collaborators from all around the world: they offer consultations and support to researchers who would like to work with their animals, whether they want to study their behavior, cognition or biology. The wide range of research methods developed and used at the Wolf Science Center not only allows for comparisons between wolves and dogs, but also between animals and humans: especially playful and interactive studies can work well with wolves, dogs and young children alike. These studies can expand our knowledge about which skills are species-specific and which ones are shared, which ones can be acquired during socialization and which ones are innate. The Cognitive Development Center is also exploring these questions – in the near future, potentially also in collaboration with the WSC.