Canine Attentiveness is Innate

Researchers study wolves to prove the origin of the human-dog relationship.
By JoAnna Lou, February 2015, Updated June 2021
Many studies have show that dogs can understand human gestures, while chimpanzees cannot. This initially came as a surprise to scientists because of our genetic ties to primates. It was thought that canines developed this ability through domestication, however a series of new studies suggest that this capability may be more innate.

Behavioral scientists from Austria's Messerli Research Institute and the Wolf Science Center hypothesize that the dynamic between wolves and their pack mates could've provided the basis for today's human-dog relationship. Because of this, they believe that selection for social attentiveness and tolerance was not necessary during canine domestication.  

To test their hypothesis the researchers have been working on a series of experiments to examine social attentiveness and tolerance of wolves and dogs within their packs and toward humans. To compare what could be attributed to evolutionary changes rather than individual experiences, the researchers compared dogs and wolves that had been raised in an identical way and socialized with humans to a similar extent.

The first study tested the ability of the dogs and wolves to pay attention to human actions. In the experiment, the subjects observed a familiar human either hide a food reward or pretend to hide one. There was also a control round where the food was hidden before they entered the test area (and would have to detect by smell). Both the dogs and wolves were equally good at differentiating whether or not the person actually hid food or not. Interestingly dogs outperformed the wolves in both test and control conditions, suggesting that they relied on their nose more than the wolves to find the hidden food.

Another experiment looked at the wolves' ability to follow gaze. The researchers set up scenarios to see if wolves would follow the eyes of people and pack members, both looking into distant space and around barriers. They found that the subjects followed human gaze just as readily as their fellow wolves, implying high social attention and willingness to accept people as social partners who might provide important information.

So far the researchers' work has shown that wolves pay as much attention to people as dogs do, supporting the hypothesis that the human-canine bond was not necessarily selected for through domestication. The behavioral scientists plan on continuing their experiments to further their theory. It's certainly interesting to see that the understanding we have with our dogs could be in their DNA!