Do Wolves Cooperate, and Dogs Submit? A Dog Trainer’s Thoughts

Not a wolf, this dog is an Australian shepherd.
Not a wolf, this dog is an Australian shepherd.

Research from the American Behavior Society was noted this week in Science (22-August-2014). The title, “Wolves Cooperate but Dogs Submit, Study Suggests” caught my attention, perhaps because I was at work doing my job as a science writer/editor and the word “dog” appeared in something related to work. What could be more fun than dogs at work?

But my attention was sustained because this is yet another report comparing wolves and dogs, a natural and obvious comparison, but one that always puzzles me, for several reasons.

As a former graduate student and lab tech, I know that when doing research, results are everything. Wait: Correct interpretation and reporting of results is the ultimate.  But without the proper controls, one cannot correctly interpret or report results.
The control is the piece or part of the experiment that shows what happens when no treatment is applied; the sample or subject is in the same environment and has the same experience as the treated samples or group.

Full Disclosure
However, my experience is in biology research. The dog-wolf study discussed here is behavorial research. I have never (willingly and knowingly) participated in behavioral research.

But I know that controls are essential and that in behavioral research on live subjects, controls are probably very difficult to…control.

About the Research
This study was reported a few weeks ago at the Animal Behavior Society meeting at Princeton University in New Jersey, USA, by Friederike Range and Zsifua Viranyi, authors of a number of dog-wolf studies at the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Austria.

Range and Viranyi performed this research using lab-raised dog and wolf packs. The packs contained from two to six animals, either mixed breed dogs or wolves. All animals were raised by the scientists at the Wolf Science Center in Game Park, Ernstbrunn, Austria.

The pups lived with the researchers from age 10 days onward, around the clock, 24 hours a day, to acclimate all puppies, dog or wolf, to humans. The puppies were later introduced to pack life.  The report in Science did not mention the age of the dogs and wolves when these packs were formed.

The researchers tested the dogs’ and wolves’ tolerance for their pack members using a food challenge, by pairing a high-ranking dog with a low-ranking pack member and giving to them a bowl of food. This same challenge was also tested on a similarly ranked pair of wolves.

In every match up, the higher ranked dog monopolized the food, as Range reported at the ABS meeting, while the high- and low-ranking wolves ate at the same time.

It was noted that the higher ranking wolf, at times, showed “mild aggression” to its lower ranking counterpart, but with the dogs, the lower-ranking dog reportedly would not even try to access the food, in the presence of it’s higher-ranked cohort.

Other Studies, Similar Results
A second test of cooperation looked for whether a dog or a wolf would follow the gaze of it’s pack member to find food. The wolves were superior in this challenge as well.

Range noted about the wolves, “They are very cooperative with each other, and when they have a disagreement or must make a group decision, they have a lot of ‘talk’ first.” In the dog packs, the higher-ranked dog always acted aggressively to the lower-ranked dog, for even the smallest transgression.

Range and Viryani interpreted these results to mean that dogs do not cooperate and commented that the dog –human relationship is hierarchical, rather than cooperative. We say that humans domesticated and bred dogs to be cooperative, but these researchers find the notion of cooperation amongst dogs a fallacy.

Also not a wolf. This dog is a Cairn Terrier.
Also not a wolf. This dog is a Cairn Terrier.

A second researcher, Monique Udell, animal behaviorist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, presented dog-wolf results at the same meeting, supporting Range’s report that dogs are waiting for orders.

Udell tested dogs  and wolves for their ability to independently problem solve, by giving individual animals 2 minutes each to open a sealed container of summer sausage.
None of the adult dogs succeeded and Udell noted that most dogs did not try (20 dogs were tested). However, 8 of 10 wolves successfully opened the container of summer sausage in less than 2 minutes, as did dog puppies that were tested. Her interpretation is that as dogs grow into adulthood, they become dependent on humans. The independence exhibited by very young dogs becomes inhibited as dogs reach adulthood.

As a non-behavioral researcher, I am not very well-qualified to judge these results. However, as a dog owner and dog trainer, and former researcher that has developed controls for experiments, I have some opinions.

Thoughts From a Dog Owner/Trainer
First of all, the inability of adult dogs to open a sealed container of summer sausage is nearly beyond my grasp. While I agree with the researchers that adult dogs are capable of completing this task, but are waiting for a command to do so, I know at least one dog, and there are very probably many others that would blow these results out of the water. Or at least the summer sausage out of that container.

My first dog, we call him Hombre Numero Uno, would starve to death before he’d attempt to open a food-filled and sealed container, and I could have gone to my grave believing that adult dogs need a command to perform such a tempting task.

However, when Hombre Numero Uno reached age 4 years, Hombre Numero Dos came into our lives. The two dogs are half-brothers, but were raised in very different circumstances.
Hombre Numero Uno was, as a puppy  beginning at 1 day, held, handled, stroked and petted by an experienced puppy raiser, in preparation for becoming a pet and performance dog. His litter was the only one at this home at the time. Uno came to live with us when he was 8 weeks old.

Hombre Numero Dos was born in a kennel situation, where there were many other dogs and his litter probably arrived while there were other litters of young puppies. His life was originally planned as that of a show dog, meaning that he would be shown in conformation, and eventually used in a breeding program.

The significant difference here is not the intended goal for the dog, rather the situation in which the dog was raised. Uno was handled and touched and exposed to a variety of people and rewarded very early for his attention to people. Dos was allowed a lot of independence, and apparently had much less handling. He would not make eye contact with me the first six months we lived together. Due to certain of his habits, it seems that he may have spent a lot of time, growing up, confined and he certainly was not rewarded for responding to people.

Uno is highly attentive to his owners and very respectful, and has never taken a bowl of food off the counter or out of the sink. Dos considers any food within his reach (including at the bottom of a deep sink)  his food. Dos would have, during Dr. Udell’s study, set a new course record for shortest time into the sealed container. “Wolf-schmolf”, says dog Dos.

 Observations of Other Dog Breeds
Uno, Dos and I spend a fair amount of time at dog training facilities, either in classes in obedience, rally and agility or at competitions. Uno has his AKC titles in Obedience and agility, while Dos and I are still, not surprisingly considering his upbringing and my lack of ability as a coach and teammate, working on our team-ness as handler and dog.

At these trainings and competitions, we get to observe quite a variety of dog breeds and dog abilities. Probably most commonly we see Labrador retrievers, Golden retrievers, Border Collies and German Shepherd Dogs—all good working dogs, as are many other breeds and mixed-breed dogs.

But it’s obvious that each of these breeds was developed and is still bred for different tasks. Golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers are obviously hunting dogs, while the GSDs are protection and herding dogs, and the Border collies are herding dogs. I say obvious, because each breed brings slightly different traits and abilities to the sport of agility and obedience. A note that by developed, I mean these particular dogs have been selectively bred over many years, possibly 50 years and more.

AKC results will show that any of these breeds are capable of reaching the highest echelons of competition in agility or obedience (although Border Collies appear to be aiming for world domination, and if you watch world agility competitions, you’ll see what I mean.

For instance, Labs with their boundless enthusiasm, can be some of the fastest dogs on the agility course, and in obedience, will happily perform a retrieve of the dumbbell at breakneck speed. However, Labs from certain kennels, will be easier to train to bring the dumbbell back or to wait for the signal to go get the dumbbell after it is thrown, than others. And in the ring, while in heel position at the dog handler’s left side, certain happy, enthusiastic Golden retrievers may have trouble staying at the side, and instead creep slightly ahead of their handler, forging.

In agility, the enthusiasm of a Border Collie who has decades and generations of breeding behind it, the goal of which is to select for a dog that can work away from it’s handler herding sheep, could result in this very smart, fast, enthusiastic dog being better at reaching the end of the course, than at taking directions on which jump is next in the sequence.
My point is that dogs have been for many decades, selectively bred to do certain work. My dogs are from bloodlines that are 30-40 years in the making. In our case, they’ve been chosen for their desire to happily work close to the people, and paying direct attention and prancing like they are in a circus. In class, mine are the dogs that want to be close and looking me, sometimes an aid, sometimes a hinderance, depending on the activity.

In the research by Range and Viranyi, and Udell as well, I agree that dogs have gained a dependence on humans, that wolves obviously do not have. Wolves need each other to pull down large game, and cooperative nature is the only way this works.

However, one generation of living with humans is not sufficient, in my dog experience, to develop a wolf or a dog that has particular traits or abilities.

Also not a wolf, this is "Dos", hunting a mouse.
Also not a wolf, this is “Dos”, hunting a mouse.

Controlling for Wildness and Selective Breeding
In comparing dogs and wolves, it would be really interesting to compare wild dogs with wild wolves, difficult for obvious reasons. Another potential control would be a far wider range of types of dogs. Foxhounds that are raised to work as pack dogs when hunting, might make for an interesting control for dog cooperation versus submission.

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Kari Kenefick

Kari Kenefick

Kari has been a science writer/editor for Promega since 1996. Prior to that she enjoyed working in veterinary microbiology/immunology, and has an M.S. in Bacteriology, U of WI-Madison. Favorite topics include infectious disease, inflammation, aging, exercise, nutrition and personality traits. When not writing, she enjoys training her dogs in agility and obedience. About the practice of writing, as we say for cell-based assays, "add-mix-measure".


  1. I´m sorry but your comparisment are way out of line.
    Dogs do not wait for a command, unless they are trained for it and one must assume that the animals(wolves and dogs) used for the experiment, was raised equally, so your miscredit to the researchers interpretertion of the results from the foodbowl/Summer sausage container, is rather vague, especially considering your lack of evidence suggesting, that the researchers did`nt raise all the animals equally.
    Do you actually know their control parameters or are you just shooting with blanks ? again, you are on deep water.

    Please leave the science to the real scientists and focus on your own field of expertise.

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