The wolf pup Björk

(Christina Hansen Wheat/Stockholm University/Phys.org)

Dogs are a man’s best friend. But when exactly did this friendship begin? Did we raise the wolves of old to put up with us, or were we somehow just furry enough for them to mistake us for one of their pack? Did the wild canids always have a soft spot for our unlikely alliance, or did we have to evolve them to unlock their respect over generations? Well, keep reading because while your dog won’t tell you these secrets, a new study sure can!

There is a clear overwhelming affirmation that these adorable animals haven’t lost any of their popularity since we first domesticated them into a myriad of different shapes, sizes, temperaments and colours over 15,000 to 30,000 years ago (check out our Twitter spaces Dog Day discussion for proof). That number, as well as the strategies we employed to win them over to our side are, however, the subject of considerable controversy.

What, for instance, did humans see in these ferocious killers that led them to believe that our companionship could have a chance? While most believe that only after the wolf’s graduation into a dog thousands of years ago were they inculcated with the ability to form attachments with humans, there has been a recent growing mountain of evidence against it.

“We felt that there was a need to thoroughly test this,” says Dr Christina Hansen Wheat, the lead author of the study. “Together with earlier studies making important contributions to this question, I think it is now appropriate to entertain the idea that if variation in human-directed attachment behaviour exists in wolves, this behaviour could have been a potential target for early selective pressures exerted during dog domestication.”

In simpler terms, Dr Wheat wants to test whether wild wolves naturally displayed bonding behaviour towards humans once an early comforting hand was extended to them. And to examine this, the team of scientists had to start from the wee ol’ puppy stage.

Beware, because this is the part of the experiment that might convert many of you readers into ethologists. To assess how domestication might affect behaviour, the team hand-raised wolf and dog pups from the age of 10 days under identical conditions, in what sounds like any dog lover’s dream. After three adorable years of collecting data via various behavioural tests, what Dr Wheat and her team found was shocking, to woof the least.

Dr Christina Wheat Hansen with the wolf pup Lemmy (Peter Kaut/Phys.org)

Dr Christina Wheat Hansen with the wolf pup Lemmy

(Peter Kaut/Phys.org)

They found that in unstable and stressful environments, not only did the wolves welcome a familiar human face more than their doggy counterparts — meaning that they could effectively discriminate between us humans, which is already huge — but they were actually much more severely affected by the turmoil that came with such unfamiliar situations.

During this trying time, the involvement of a human helped them calm down quite nicely and thus acted as an important stress buffer for the species, demonstrating their reliance on us yet again. This meant we might’ve just exploited their anxiety around the unfamiliar and that it probably didn’t take generations of breeding to form our partnerships with these majestic animals.

“The remarkable thing was that when the familiar person, a hand-raiser that had been with the wolves all their lives, re-entered the test room, the pacing behaviour stopped,” Dr Hansen explained. “I do not believe that this has ever been shown to be the case for wolves before, and this also complements the existence of a strong bond between the animals and the familiar person.”

While it might seem like an obvious thing to note that such behaviour can just come off as typical canine traits or habits in general, one of the objectives of science is to convert beliefs into exact truths. And now we know for sure that at one point, there is a good chance that the popular idiom didn’t ring the same as it does today and could’ve very well originated from ‘wolves are a man’s best friend’.

This study was published in Ecology and Evolution and can be accessed here.

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