Timber wolves proved more cooperative than dogs in a food acquisition test. 

Tim Fitzharris/Minden Pictures

Why wolves are better team players than dogs

Dogs may be social butterflies, but wolves are top dog when it comes to working together as a team.  That’s because unlike dogs, wolves haven’t evolved to avoid conflict; instead, members of a pack “sort things out” as they forage together, according to a new study. The work calls into question a long-held assumption that domestication fostered more cooperative individuals.

“This study is a fabulous first go at experimentally comparing the ability of wolves and dogs to cooperate with their groupmates,” says Brian Hare, a dog cognition expert at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who was not involved with the work. “Wolves run circles around dogs.”

We tend to think of dogs as team players because they work with us to hunt, rescue trapped people, herd livestock, and play. But though  dogs can be easily trained to work with people, it’s much harder to get them to work with fellow dogs. That’s especially true of village dogs, free-ranging canines with no owners or training that make up some 80% of the world’s pooches. They hang out in loose packs, surviving primarily on garbage and scraps. And there’s very little study of them, says Clive Wynne, a comparative psychologist at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Sarah Marshall-Pescini, a comparative psychologist at the University of Vienna, is helping change that. She teamed up with researchers at the Wolf Science Centre in Ernstbrunn, Austria, where dogs and wolves are raised under similar semiwild conditions, albeit with medical care and some daily training. The center houses about 15 mongrel dogs and seven small packs of timber wolves, with two to three wolves in each pack.

There, she tested pairs of dogs or wolves in an exercise that has also been used to study cooperative behavior in chimps and bonobos. She put food on a tray attached to two ropes—but the animals could get the food only if each individual pulled on a different rope at the same time. She and her colleagues carefully evaluated the animals’ behavior before, during, and after the first test as well as on subsequent tests. Both wolves and dogs were curious about the food trays, but whereas dogs approached the food one at a time, the wolves rarely waited their turn. This has been seen in earlier studies: “Wolves will argue over food but also feed at the same time, [but] dogs simply avoid the potential [of] conflict,” Marshall-Pescini explains.

In the new study, wolves were more were more likely to pull the rope at the same time, learning that this teamwork was the secret to their success, Marshall-Pescini and her colleagues report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Overall, wolves got the food 100 of 416 times, whereas dogs succeed only twice in 416 attempts. Thus, says Marshall-Pescini, it seems that as wolves were domesticated, their natural tendency to cooperate shifted from other animals to humans. “Dogs were bred to get along with us and to pay close attention to us, but not necessarily to cooperate the way wolves do,” says Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta who was not involved with the study.

The next step should look at whether different rearing or breeding alters how dogs work with other dogs, Hare says. And Marshall-Pescini would like to eventually design a test that requires sequential cooperation, so the dogs’ tendency to avoid going after food at the same time will not be a factor.  In the meantime, adds Wynne, the new study “takes our consideration of dog-wolf differences to a new level.”