Tue, 09/28/2021 - 10:26am

Move Over, Little Red Riding Hood

An Austrian science center explores the similarities between wolves, dogs and humans

Two wicked eyes spied on her from behind a tree ... a strange rustling in the woods made Little Red Riding Hood's heart thump. Now quite afraid, she said to herself, "I must find the path and run away from here!" At last, she reached the path again, but her heart leapt into her mouth at the sound of a gruff voice that said: "Where are you going, my pretty girl, all alone in the woods?"

This is perhaps the image many modern city dwellers still have of the wolf, the wily and ruthless predator with fathomless yellow eyes and huge, crushing teeth. A creature whose very purpose is to devour any and every thing that lies in its path.



However, the wolf, or Canis lupus, has also been humankind's partner in the past 50,000 years of our mutual existence, mainly in the form of its evolutionary cousin the dog – man’s best friend. Stories of partnership between people and wolves are as common as those that portray the wolf in a negative light. One only need remember the story of Remus and Romulus, founders of Rome who were nursed by a she-wolf. Or the story of the wolf tamed by Saint Francis of Assisi in the Middle Ages:

“Brother Wolf,” Francis said, “I want to make peace between you and the people of Gubbio. They will harm you no more, and you must no longer harm them. All past crimes are to be forgiven.” The wolf showed its assent by moving its body and nodding its head. Then, to the absolute surprise of the gathering crowd, Francis asked the wolf to make a pledge. As St. Francis extended his hand, the wolf extended its front paw and placed it into the saint’s hand. Then Francis commanded the wolf to follow him into town to make a peace pact with the townspeople. The wolf meekly followed St. Francis. 



The study of wolves sheds light on their almost symbiotic relationship with humans. A unique research station, the Wolf Science Center in Austria, explores the similarities between wolves, dogs and humans. The wolves are hand-raised by scientists, developing a close and trusting working relationship with them. They regularly participate in cooperative and cognitive tasks that study their mental abilities and keep them physically and mentally busy, benefitting their welfare.

Professor Kurt Kotrschal, associate professor of zoology at the University of Vienna and joint director of the research center with Zsofia Viranyi and Friederike Range, explains its premise: "All dogs have originated from wolves. Through the process of domestication, they have adapted to live among people. It still remains unknown whether and to what degree they continue to think in a wolf-like way, or in exactly which way their problem solving, learning skills and cooperative disposition toward humans have changed in comparison with wolves."

Many assume that dogs have lost some cognitive skills and problem-solving abilities because they manage to engage humans as assistants and troubleshooters. Wolves, on the other hand, are still required to cope with the challenges of the wilderness. Others believe dogs' insight is no worse than the wolves', but domestication has increased their sensitivity to humans.

"Although our current understanding of dog behavior is rapidly increasing, information about wolves is lacking," Prof. Kotrschal explains. "Our main goal is to try and collect this data and understand the influence of wolves' and dogs' social relationships among themselves and between them and humans on their cognitive and cooperative development and performance."

Approaching the center, one enters a long lane with a stone wall on one side and a row of shady trees on the other. The wolves are kept behind the stone wall, in a large enclosure divided into two. One side holds the black timber wolves; on the verge of adulthood at about 18 months old, they were acquired from an Austrian zoo. On the other side are several younger wolves, about six months old, flown in from the Triple-D Ranch in Montana. 

"We look into the wolves' cognitive abilities, and it is useful to have more gentle specimens," notes Zsofia Viranyi, a post-doctorate scientist who hails from Hungary. "In general, the timber wolves adapt more easily to humans."

Several dogs stroll around within the wolves' enclosure, responding to commands given by the trainers. "The wolves actually learn from the dogs," Viranyi explains, "in the same way puppies learn from adult dogs." They have already amassed a repertoire of 25 different commands, including "sit," "down" and some that are more difficult for a feral animal, such as "stay." 



Since the wolves have not reached their full adulthood, at the moment the dogs are actually in command and treat the young wolves like puppies, chiding them for misbehaving. The situation may turn for the worse next year, when the wolves reach adulthood. Then the dogs may be in danger from the wolves' jaws and their coexistence in this environment will have to end. 

The scientists, on the other hand, treat the wolves with caution in an attempt to consolidate a partnership devoid of coercion, based on positive reinforcement. Kotrschal takes a long pole and drags it along while two wolves play with it. The distance between the man and the wolves lets the animals believe the man has no relation to the pole they are chasing.

Some visitors are allowed to enter the enclosures and meet the wolves firsthand. They are required to sign a waiver, even though the wolves are not considered dangerous. The wolves are wary of strangers, but when engaged in familiar actions they are more approachable.

Touching a wolf is quite an emotional experience. Perhaps it enfolds all the primal fears we have been inundated with for centuries. The six-month-old babies are larger than the average dog, with huge teeth and yellow eyes. Their gray coat resembles that of a Siberian Husky, but it is much thicker and extremely coarse on the exterior. I did my best not to look them in the eyes since they may construe this as aggression. 

The beautiful beasts do as they please, and we were quite grateful when they came up to us, sniffing us thoroughly and eventually allowing us to pat them. When we left this enclosure, another part of our group entered, and the poor people waited for about 30 minutes while the disinterested wolves did everything but approach them.



On accessing the other pack's home territory, that of the older black wolves, one feels the trainers' open eyes on the lookout for any sign of trouble. These wolves have been known to steal objects from visitors, including cameras, cell phones and other devices. Prying these objects away from the creatures is a daunting task, and one usually ends up with an unusable piece of paraphernalia. Thus we were stripped of all such objects on entering the enclosure, bringing only our cameras and hoping they would not strike the occupants' fancy.

The most prominent feature of the black wolves is their yellow eye, even more daunting than that of the gray-colored wolves. They are also less eager to make contact with strangers, although happy to perform various commands for their trainers.



The center’s major objective is to facilitate scientific studies involving wolves, dogs and humans. Since the institution is relatively new, only one study has been completed and published to date. This study attempted to reveal differences between wolf puppies and dog puppies of the same age when interacting with human beings. It demonstrated that at the early age of three to five weeks – despite unprecedented intense socialization and comparable social (human) environments during early development – there are specific behavioral differences between wolves and dogs, mostly with regard to their interaction with humans. 



Among the more intriguing studies carried out at the center is one that involves the wolves using a touch-screen computer to figure out various puzzles. Although we were eager to watch this experiment, the scientists were reluctant to allow strangers into the room with the wolves since they were still quite new at the task, and so we were only able to see a dog doing these functions.

Hopefully, the studies at the center should shed light on the issues of dog training on a firm scientific basis, enhance comprehension of human-dog companionship and support educated decisions regarding animal-assisted therapy.



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