Dogs only developed the ability to emotionally attach to humans after they were domesticated by wolves over 15,000 years ago – well, that’s the prevailing theory. Now, a Swedish study adds to a growing body of evidence challenging that assumption.
A research collaboration between the universities of Stockholm and Lund has demonstrated that not only do wolves have the ability to develop social relationships with humans, but that these behaviors are similar to those of domestic dogs raised under identical conditions.
12 dog puppies and 10 wolf puppies were hand raised by the same human caregiver in a standardized and identical way. Next, the researchers performed a “strange situation test,” originally designed to test attachment in human infants, on each of the animals. It basically involved their familiar caregiver and a stranger taking turns in and out of the room containing the dog or wolf.
The animal’s behavior was then recorded and measured against several identified categories, including positive or curious behaviors such as exploration, physical contact, social play, greetings, and actions more indicative of stress or fear, such as standing by the door, following, crouching, pacing or tail tucking.
Throughout the test, the wolves demonstrated that they spent more time greeting and being in physical contact with the familiar person than with the stranger. This strongly suggests that, like dogs, wolves are more than capable of forming attachments with humans and, as evidenced by the age of the animals, this is not an ability only reserved for wolf pups.
“It was very clear that wolves, like dogs, preferred the familiar person abroad,” said Dr Christina Hansen Wheat of Stockholm University in Sweden. “But perhaps even more interesting was that while the dogs weren’t particularly affected by the testing situation, the wolves were and roamed the testing room.” When the familiar person reentered the room, the pacing behavior stopped, “indicating that the familiar person acted as a social stress buffer for the wolves.”
This is the first time this type of attachment behavior has been demonstrated in wolves, and Hansen Wheat believes it “complements the existence of a strong bond between animals and the familiar person”.
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Hansen Wheat suggests that wolves’ ability to show attachment to humans makes sense when considering human-wolf interactions in prehistoric times. “Wolves showing human-directed attachment could have had a selective advantage and could have been a potential target for early selective pressures exerted during dog domestication,” she says.
The team hopes to continue to investigate and compare the behaviors of dogs and wolves raised in identical circumstances, to further contribute to our growing understanding of the role domestication has played in our developing relationship with the animal’s best friend. humanity.
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