A New Study Suggests Wolves Can Bond with People Much Like Dogs

A recent study in Sweden suggests that hand-raised wolves can bond with humans in the same way as dogs. Basically, they can express affection and form attachments, much like Fido or Bowser. It doesn’t seem all that surprising, seeing as dogs are the domesticated descendants of wolves. While an exact timeline and place for early canine domestication is frequently debated, genetic evidence generally points to northern Eurasia somewhere between 14,000 and 29,000 years ago.

The Domestication of Dogs vs. Wolves

Conducted by researchers at Stockholm University, the report was published in the peer-reviewed journal “Ecology and Evolution” on Wiley Online Library. It’s entitled Human-directed attachment behavior in wolves suggests standing ancestral variation for human–dog attachment bonds. The authors include Linn Larsson, Patricia Berner, Hans Temrin, and lead author Christina Hansen Wheat. In the opening or summary of their report, the following was outlined:

“Domesticated animals are generally assumed to display increased sociability toward humans compared to their wild ancestors. Dogs (Canis familiaris) have a remarkable ability to form social relationships with humans, including lasting attachment, a bond based on emotional dependency. Since it has been specifically suggested that the ability to form attachment with humans evolved post-domestication in dogs, attempts to quantify attachment behavior in wolves (Canis lupus) have subsequently been performed. However, while these rare wolf studies do highlight the potential for wolves to express human-directed attachment, the varied methods used and the contrasting results emphasize the need for further, standardized testing of wolves.

“Here, we used the standardized Strange Situation Test to investigate attachment behavior expressed in wolves and dogs hand-raised and socialized under standardized and identical conditions up until the age of testing. We found that 23-week-old wolves and dogs equally discriminated between a stranger and a familiar person, and expressed similar attachment behaviors toward a familiar person. Additionally, wolves, but not dogs, expressed significantly elevated stress-related behavior during the test, but this stress response was buffered by the presence of a familiar person. Together, our results suggest that wolves can show attachment behaviors toward humans comparable to those of dogs. Importantly, our findings demonstrate that the ability to form attachment with humans exists in relatives of the wild ancestor of dogs, thereby refuting claims that this phenotype evolved after dog domestication was initiated.”

white wolves
Photo: Pixabay/mila-del-monte

Heredity v. Environment

The further out from the initial domestication, the tamer or more domesticated the line becomes. Animals that would be considered first generation retain their wild instincts more closely and can be unpredictable, reverting back to those behaviors at any given time. This is frequently seen in wild animals hand raised from birth or shortly thereafter.

In this case, the researchers raised 12 puppies and 10 wolf pups from the age of just 10 days old under standardized conditions considered to be identical. Over the next several months, a series of behavioral tests were conducted, including one termed the “Strange Situation” test. This involved a stranger and a person familiar to the animals alternately entering and exiting the room study subjects were kept in. The researchers observed that both groups behaved differently with the stranger from the way that they did with the familiar person. In effect, this demonstrated that the ability to form emotional bonds with a person considered familiar isn’t unique to just dogs. Interestingly, the wolves showed higher stress levels around the unknown individual versus the dogs, who were predominantly unaffected by the stranger’s presence. Once the familiar person returned, the wolves’ stress levels decreased.

wolf pup
Photo: Pixabay/diapicard

The Evolution of Domestication

Ultimately, their findings suggest that the ability to form bonds with humans is inherent in all Canidaes, not just domestic dogs or wolf puppies. The researchers also believe that early domesticators of canines all those years ago likely bred dogs with this particular trait in mind. It would certainly make sense, and we’re glad they did.

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