“The assumption that dogs are a tamer version of wolves is an oversimplification,” says Anindita Bhadra, from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata. “This is all the more reason why we need to carry out similar studies on free-ranging dogs.”
Around 80 percent of dogs, in fact, are free-ranging, and their behavior shows just how different they are to wolves. They’re mostly solitary, scavenging alone on human garbage. When they do form packs, these groups are usually small and loose-knit. They might hunt together, but they mostly congregate to defend their territory. By contrast, wolves live in extremely tight-knit family groups. They rely on their pack-mates to bring down large prey, and they work together to rear each other’s pups. The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack, as Rudyard Kipling’s poem goes.
Fifteen wolves currently live in Vienna’s Wolf-Science Center, along with 15 dogs. “The center was established to look at the differences between wolves and dogs in as fair a way as possible,” says Marshall-Pescini. “They’re raised in exactly the same way, with a lot of human contact. This allows us to test a lot of different things without the confounding variables of wolves not being used to humans and pet dogs being super-used to humans.”
She and her colleagues challenged their canines to a simple task, which other scientists have used on all kinds of brainy animals—chimps, monkeys, parrots, ravens, and even elephants. There’s a food-bearing tray that lies on the other side of their cage, tempting and inaccessible. A string is threaded through rings on the tray, and both of its ends lie within reach of the animals. If an individual grabs an end and pulls, it would just yank the string out and end up with a mouthful of fibers—not food. But if two animals pull on the ends together, the tray slides close, and they get to eat.
All in all, the dogs did terribly. Just one out of eight pairs managed to pull the tray across, and only once out of dozens of trials. By contrast, five out of seven wolf pairs succeeded, on anywhere between 3 and 56 percent of their attempts. Even after the team trained the animals, the dogs still failed, and the wolves still outshone them. “We imagined that we would find some differences but we didn’t expect them to be quite so strong,” Marshall-Pescini says.
It’s not that the dogs were uninterested: They explored the strings as frequently as the wolves did. But the wolves would explore the apparatus together—biting, pawing, scratching, and eventually pulling on it. The dogs did not. They tolerated each other’s presence, but they were much less likely to engage with the task at the same time, which is why they almost never succeeded.
“The dogs are really trying to avoid conflict over what they see as a resource,” says Marshall-Pescini. “This is what we found in food-sharing studies, where the dominant animal would take the food and the subordinate wouldn’t even try to approach. With wolves, there’s a lot of arguing and it sounds aggressive, but they end up sharing. They have really different strategies in situations of potential conflict. [With the dogs], you see that if you avoid the other individual, you avoid conflict, but you can’t cooperate either.”