Does your pooch take more risks than a wolf?

The risk preference of dogs and wolves may have something to do with the animals' food sources, according to new research.

Courtesy of Robert Bayer
Etu and Ela, two wolf pups at the Wolf Science Center in Ernstbrunn, Austria.

Not surprisingly, scientists say wily wolves are more daring than faithful Fidos. And now they think they know why.

Thousands of years ago, some friendly wolves began to hang around human encampments, realizing that people's food scraps would make an easy snack. Those canines evolved to become the domestic dog, while the wolves who continued to hunt large game remained wild wolves – at least that's how many scientists think the story goes. 

These different foraging strategies may have led to the two species' distinct risk preferences, according to a new study published Thursday in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. And these results match patterns seen among other animals.

This study "supports the idea that risk-taking strategies are shaped by how animals make a living finding food," writes Brian Hare, a cognitive scientist and founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center at Duke University, who was not part of this study, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor.

Researchers at the Wolf Science Center in Austria tested this idea on seven wolves and seven dogs that had been raised in the same way at the center.

Each canine was presented with two upside-down bowls. Beneath one bowl was a bland food pellet, the "safe" option, while the other presented a "risky" choice: either contained a special food item, like meat – or a stone.

The canines had already learned that when they tapped a bowl with a paw or a nose it would indicate a choice. 

"As predicted by the different feeding ecology of the two species, wolves chose the risky option much more often than dogs," study lead author Sarah Marshall-Pescini tells the Monitor in an email. The wolves chose the risky option 80 percent of the time, while the dogs took the risk just 58 percent of the time.

Because all the canine test subjects were raised under the same conditions at the Wolf Science Center, these results point to "nature," not "nurture" as driving their risk preference.

"Dogs are specialized scavengers. They seek for and rely on human waste resources and hand-outs, which is largely a stable resource," Dr. Marshall-Pescini explains.

"Wolves on the other hand rely on hunting dangerous game, which is risky business," she adds.

This isn't a novel idea. Other studies have suggested foragers are more risk-averse than hunters, regardless of species.

One study of tits (songbirds) found that, among three different species, those that eat more insects took more risks, while those that were more granivorous were risk-averse.

Chimpanzees and bonobos also fit into that pattern, according to another study. The two closely-related primates have different food sources: the chimps hunt and munch on seasonal fruits, while the bonobos depend on stabler sources of vegetation. And, as with the wolves and dogs, the chimpanzees preferred the riskier option while the bonobos played it safe.

"I think the paper shows that canid risk preferences fit nicely with what's already been observed in primates, showing that these patterns emerge across taxonomic groups," Laurie Santos, a comparative cognitive psychologist at Yale University who was not part of the study, tells the Monitor in an email.

Marshall-Pescini says her work highlights the distinctions between wolves and dogs – it isn't just that one has become humans' best friend.

"We need to consider how dogs have adapted to the novel niche we created for them, not just in terms of how they interact with us, but also in relation to how they interact with each other and with their external environment," she says.

And clearly humans have had a huge influence on dogs' behavior.

"Domestication likely was in part responsible for making dogs less likely to take big risks when trying to find food while wolves are still big gamblers," Dr. Hare says. If canines were allowed to gamble, he adds, "casinos would be full of wolves but not dogs."

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