Animal IQ

Why Wolves are Much Better Team Players than Dogs

Everybody knows that dogs are a man's best friend. And humans are pretty famous for working together. So you'd think our brothers-in-paws would be just as intuitively cooperative. Wrong. Wolves are a lot better at teamwork than dogs are.

A Dog Eat Dog World

Our canine companions have been handy helpers throughout the ages. They work with us to hunt, to herd, to guide, and even to sniff out dangerous substances. So it's a little surprising to find out that they're not very good team players compared to their undomesticated cousins. But in fact, it might be dogs' willingness to help us out that prevents them from working with each other.

See, dogs have evolved in our domestic care to avoid conflict, while bickering wolves don't have a problem sorting things out. Comparative psychologist Sarah Marshall-Pescini took a group of captive wolves and mongrel dogs and gave them a version of a test used on chimpanzees and bonobos. The canines were all presented with food on a tray connected to two ropes. Only pulling on both ropes would release the food — and dogs just couldn't figure that out. Out of 416 attempts, the wolf teams got a treat 100 times, and the dogs succeeded only twice.

It came down to the fact that the dogs would only approach the food one at a time. The wolves might snap at each other over the food — meaning they wouldn't let politeness stand in the way of finding a solution. Without a human being to take the lead, the dogs were at a loss for how to proceed.

Cooperation Versus Submission

Marshall-Pescini's work wasn't the first to show that wolves are better team players than dogs. Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi looked into canine hierarchies for both dogs and wolves, and found that wolves are much better communicators. High-ranking dogs often chased off lower-ranking dogs, and prevented them from eating when resources were limited. The wolves, however, would allow each other room to dig in regardless of their social status in the pack.

One last study provided some evidence that even when working on their own, wolves simply had a better time with problem-solving. Animal behaviorist Monique Udell presented the animals with a sealed container of summer sausage. Eight of 10 wolves got into the jar with no problem, while none of the dogs did — most didn't even try. Interestingly, though, dog puppies did quite well at the test, suggesting that it wasn't an inability to open the container as much as an unwillingness to. In other words, those dogs were just such good boys, they wouldn't sneak into the sausage-y treats.

And yes, if you're wondering, this research means you're better off drafting Teen Wolf over Air Bud for your basketball team.

When Did Wild Wolves Become Pet Dogs?

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 16, 2017

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