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Wolves are less aggressive towards their conspecifics than dogs

Posted April 24, 2015

Usually wolves are regarded as less tolerant and more aggressive than dogs. Dogs are considered to be friendlier towards each other than their ancestors. However, researchers from the Messerli Research Institute at the Vetmeduni Vienna and from the Wolf Science Center question this image, suggesting that dogs have a steeper dominance hierarchy than wolves.

Myth of tolerant dogs and aggressive wolves refuted – scientists found that dogs have steeper dominance hierarchy. Photo: Walter Vorbeck

Myth of tolerant dogs and aggressive wolves refuted – scientists found that dogs have steeper dominance hierarchy. Photo: Walter Vorbeck

It has been thought that good relationship between humans and dogs was developed because humans used to select particularly tolerant animals for breeding. It is obvious that character of the dog was developed through process of domestication. Thus, cooperative and less aggressive dogs could develop. Recently it was suggested that these qualities that were important for people were also common in interaction between dogs. Therefore scientists wanted to research if dogs are in fact less aggressive and more tolerant towards their conspecifics than wolves.

Scientists carried out several behavioural tests on dogs and wolves. They tested nine wolves and eight mongrel dogs – all of them were hand-raised in the Wolf Science Centre in Ernstbrunn, Lower Austria, and kept in separated packs of wolves and dogs.  To test the hierarchy, packs consisted pairs of a high-ranked and a low-ranked animal, which were fed together. They were given a bowl of raw meat or a large bone.

These experiments provided different results than were expected. Low-rank wolves often defended their food against the high-ranked partner and showed aggressive behaviour as often as higher-ranked wolves. However, low-ranked dogs held back and accepted the threats of the dominant dog. Overall, neither of them showed aggressive behaviour, just threat signs.

The research showed that dogs are more sensitive to the dominance hierarchy, while wolves are more tolerant. It was proven by the fact that low-ranked wolves can challenge their higher-ranked partners and the dominant animals tolerate it, while aggression was a privilege of a higher-ranked dog. Scientists say that dog-human interaction is not so much about equality but more about living together without conflicts. Zsófia Virányi, one of the co-authors of the study, said that “when humans domesticated wolves, they probably chose the submissive animals that were ready to adjust”.

Both dogs and wolves rarely show any aggression against their conspecifics. Wolves are more tolerant and accepted threat signs from lower-rank wolves. Scientists came to a conclusion that cooperation between wolves and high levels of tolerance could have provided a good basis for the evolution of human-dog cooperation. This explanation challenges conventional view that dogs are friendlier and more tolerant than wolves and that is how they got domesticated. However, further research is needed to understand how dogs changed from their ancestors during breading processes.

Source: VetMedUni Vienna

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