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‘Wolves and Dogs’: Domestication, cognition, and socio-ecology

Some researchers claim that through domestication, dogs have evolved a closer, more cooperative relationship with humans and have enhanced cognitive abilities compared to wolves.

MARC BEKOFF: In their new book by Drs. Friederike Range and Sarah Marshall-Pescini titled ‘Wolves and Dogs between Myth and Science’ the authors make it abundantly clear that while we know a lot about the behavior of wolves and dogs living in a variety of settings ranging from the wild to laboratories around the world, there still is much we don’t know.

I like to say the more we learn, the more we realize how much we don’t know, and it’s important to ask: What do all these studies of wolves and dogs really mean? Variations in results aren’t necessarily due to “bad science” but rather because different dogs — purebreds and a wide variety of mutts — are studied by different researchers using different protocols in different locales… Dr. Friederike Range answers a few questions about their landmark book:

MB: Why did you and Sarah write Wolves and Dogs?

FR: Over the last 10 years, we conducted a huge number of experiments with wolves and dogs and, hopefully, have contributed a lot to how the dog domestication process is viewed today. The book was a chance to sum up all we have done and review them in relation to other studies that have been conducted so far, providing a synthesis and also an outlook for future research on dog domestication…

MB: What are some of your major messages?

FR: The main topic that is explored in the book is how domestication might have changed dogs in their cognitive abilities and social behavior towards conspecifics and humans. One important aspect is not just what has changed but also what selective pressures might have led to these differences and how the lives of dogs — even if not part of a human family — have changed in the last 30,000 years.

We also review current dog domestication hypotheses that have been suggested by various researchers. Several of them claim that through domestication, dogs have evolved a closer, more cooperative relationship with humans and have enhanced cognitive abilities compared to wolves. Others claim that wolves are better at understanding the physical world, such as means-end understanding and numerical competence.

Yet others, us included, think that there might have been very small changes that mainly allow humans to direct and inhibit dogs rather than some larger changes in cognitive or social abilities compared to wolves, and that also natural selection and not just artificial selection by humans played a major role in the domestication process. We discuss how the data that are reviewed in the book match these different predictions and point out which data are missing.

However, if people expect that all questions will be answered in this book, we are afraid they will be disappointed. When summarizing the literature, we realized how much information we are missing about this fascinating topic and how much more work will be necessary to understand the domestication process.

For example, at the moment, we do not know much about how dogs live if not being kept as pets: e.g., street dogs. What does their social organization look like, and how do they interact with pack/group members? Is it similar to wolves or completely different? We do have some information in that regard, as outlined in our chapters about the socio-ecology of wolves and dogs, but still, many questions remain open. SOURCE…


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