Dogs, Unlike Wolves, Are Born to Communicate With People

Megan Callahan–Beckel has been working alongside gray wolves since the age of four. Now the animal care coordinator at the Wildlife Science Center in Minnesotawhere her mother, Peggy Callahan, is the executive directorCallahan-Beckel grew up in a home inhabited by not only dogs but also wolf puppies, who must be intensively hand-reared for them to be comfortable with humans later in life. Every summer she raises wolf pups in her home. They love her and consider her a mother.Callahan-Beckel loves wolves as much as she does dogs. However, Callahan–Beckel is well prepared to explain why dogs stay in their homes while wolves prefer the great outdoors. She says they test you and get in your face. They are also cocky and destructive. They are everything people should not want in dogs.This contrast offers scientists a promising way forward for understanding how dogs became our constant companions. Although wolves and domestic dogs are technically one species, they can crossbreed to produce fertile offspring. However, their genomes have significant differences. Dogs are omnivorous, unlike wolves. Over the thousands of years dogs have lived with humans, they have developed a greater ability to produce an enzyme that helps digest carbohydrates. A kibble diet can provide a long, healthy life for house pets.The dog-human bond goes beyond a relationship of digestive protein. It is about behavior. Clive Wynne is the director of Arizona State University's Canine Science Collaboratory. He says that we are interested in what makes dogs unique. How is it possible that dogs play such an important role in our lives, and have for thousands of years. How is that possible?Researchers can compare the behavior of dogs with wolves to answer this question. Brian Hare, director at the Duke Canine Cognition Center and Wildlife Science Center, collected behavioral data from 37 hand-reared Wolf puppies over five years. This was a much larger sample than any other person had ever tested. The results from the wolves were compared with 44 puppy dogs, who were raised in litters and had less contact with humans than most pet dogs. They found that the dogs were more interested in and better at communicating with people, despite the fact that they had had very little human interaction. The journal Current Biology published their results in July.Dog and wolf puppies demonstrated their communication skills when they completed a task to find food with a human companion. The experimenter placed food in two bowls and pointed to one or both of them. These puppies were not trained to use nonverbal cues like a dog that sits when given a command. The wolf puppies were unable to perform this task well, but the dogs performed better in both the experimental versions. Both tests showed that the dogs selected the right container more often than the wolves did, with the success rate closer to 60 percent.For a long time, researchers have known that dogs excel at pointing. Even better than chimpanzees who are thought to be significantly more intelligent, they seem to excel at this task. This observation does not necessarily explain the behavior of dogs. Maybe they spend more time with people, and learn more about human gestures. Or maybe their ability to communicate well has a genetic basis.