Humans tend to be risk-averse, which is often illustrated by our decision when offered either $100 or the opportunity for a 50-50 shot at receiving either $200 or nothing. In general, humans go for the sure thing. We are not, as a species, risk-prone, or we would gamble on the shot at getting the bigger payoff.
It turns out that a number of studies across a broad range of species have shown that how a species responds to risk is predictable based on their feeding ecology. Animals who depend on erratic, ephemeral food sources, such as meat that they hunt or fruits that are patchy and only ripe for a brief time, tend to be risk-prone. They are willing to gamble on the big payoff. Species that eat diverse types of food or food that is more reliably available, such as vegetation, are risk-averse.
Some of our primate relatives are like us, and some are the opposite. For example, bonobos and lemurs (who both eat a very diverse diet that is mainly vegetarian) are risk-averse like us, choosing a sure thing of lower value over a chance at something better. Chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys—both meat and patchy fruit eaters—are different, being risk-prone and choosing the option that may yield a big reward but could leave then empty-handed. This pattern has appeared in closely-related species birds, too, where those who eat insects are risk-prone, while species who eat seeds are risk-averse.
Scientists haven’t fully explored how widespread this pattern of feeding ecology predicting risk-taking behavior is, but wolves and dogs are an interesting test case. These two species diverged quite recently in an evolutionary sense, but their feeding ecologies differ greatly. Wolves are primarily hunters and dogs are mainly scavengers. Hunting has a high failure rate, but the rewards of a big kill are enormous. In contrast, the source of food for the vast majority of dogs worldwide is human refuse, which tends to be available far more regularly.
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In a recent study called “Exploring Differences in Dogs’ and Wolves’ Preference for Risk in a Foraging Task” scientists investigated whether wolves and dogs conform to the pattern seen across so many other species. Based on their different feeding ecologies, they predicted that compared with each other, wolves would be risk-prone and dogs would be risk-averse. The study was done at Wolf Science Centre in Austria, using dogs and wolves who were raised and live at the facility and have had the same overall experiences there.
The subjects of the study were trained to choose either a bowl that contained a dry pellet of food or a bowl that had a fifty percent chance of containing a piece of meat and a fifty percent chance of holding a stone. After each choice, the subject was given the contents of the bowl. All the wolves and dogs in the study were subject to tests to confirm that they understood the choice they were making and also to confirm that they preferred the meat to the dry food pellet.
The researchers found that the pattern of risk-taking seen in other species also applied to wolves and dogs. As expected, wolves were more risk-prone than dogs. However, there is more to this study than that simple conclusion. Wolves learned the system faster than the dogs, and the researchers acknowledge that they may have understood it better than the dogs. Additionally, dogs’ preference for the meat versus dry food pellet was not as strong as it was for wolves. Therefore, the risk of losing out and getting nothing for the chance to get something only a little better than a food pellet may not have been worth it to dogs. There was greater variation among individual dogs in risk-taking strategy compared with wolves, who were more similar in their choices, so it’s possible that there are dogs who are risk-prone as well as dogs who are risk-averse. (Dogs made the risky choice from 38 to 76 percent of the time, while wolves took the risky option 70 to 95 percent of the time.)
Overall, despite the conclusions made from the data in this study, direct comparisons of the choices made by these two species may require further study. It would be very interesting to learn more about decisions to take risks by dogs and wolves in a study with more than seven of each species, though I realize possible subjects for a study such as this are limited. It would also be fascinating to know about the decisions foxes and coyotes would make if presented with the same choices. Comparative research that include dogs as one species among many allow us to learn a great deal about how their evolutionary history and ecology have affected their behavior. It’s one of many ways that we can deepen our understanding of the animals who share our homes and live in our hearts.