Wolves, Dogs and People: Is It Time to Reassess Our Beliefs About Attachment?
An important difference between dogs and wolves in how they relate to humans has been demonstrated to be the result of genetics rather than life experience. Jason Goldman, in “The Thoughtful Animal,” a Scientific American Blog (link below) reviews an experiment designed to determine if the close social bond between members of our species and dogs is the result of genetics (i.e. “nature“) or life experience, (i.e. “nurture).” Baby dogs and baby wolves, from 4 to 6 days after birth, were each raised by an “owner” or “foster parent.”
The foster parents hand raised the wolf and dog pups; they lived at home and when they were babies, their parents carried them in a pouch all the time so as to maintain almost constant contact. As infants the parents bottle fed them, and and later, hand fed them solid food. The foster parents also slept with the pups, essentially caring for them much as we care for human babies. The pups were socialized to be comfortable with people they didn’t know, and even with one another. At nine weeks, both were shown some attractive food that was impossible to get to on their own. Here’s where a remarkable difference showed up.
The dogs, after trying to gain access to the food on their own and failing, turned and made eye contact with their owners, asking for help so to speak. The wolves likewise wanted the food and were unable to get to it on their own, however they failed to make eye-contact with their foster parents. The dog-human bond was demonstrated in this social/cognitive interaction, it was not there with the wolves. Clearly the dogs formed a kind of attachmentwhereby they automatically turned to familiar humans for help. The wolves didn’t, they didn’t seem to consider that their owner might be able to help them, despite being raised in more or less identical circumstances, treated essentially like a baby or child by their foster parents.
This suggests that something in our genetic make-up contributes to our capacity for attachment and the expectations that parents or other caregivers will be able and willing to help when needed. “Attachment theory” which may have multiple problems in terms of how we’ve been studying it, might have predicted that with identical warm and sensitive parenting, both wolves and dogs would learn to turn to the human parent when facing an unsolvable problem. This study has to raise some doubts about the role of social experience in infancy and childhood in establishing the strength and style of attachment.
We’ve tended to assume that “good enough” parents would raise children who were able to ask for help, to lean on parents for support when needed. We may be wrong about this. The ability or proneness to turn to parents when facing a problem, to maintain that kind of attachment, may have been set into motion by the evolution of our biological attachment system, and may be more heritable than previously thought. I believe higher primates, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobosand perhaps others are more like ourselves, making eye contact when needing help. Perhaps attachment is fundamentally an evolved capacity, something we clearly inherit. It may be that autistic children have genetic mutations that cause disruptions in attachment. Other disorders, biological in etiology, may also limit the ability to attach to parents and others, and to expect and trust others to help when facing difficult problems. I think we have to at least consider that “poor attachment” is a biological, genetic problem.
Link to review of this research: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtful-animal/2012/04/30/dogs-bu…ácsi
M, Gyori B, Miklósi A, Virányi Z, Kubinyi E, Topál J, & Csányi V (2005). Species-specific differences and similarities in the behavior of hand-raised dog and wolf pups in social with humans. Developmental psychobiology, 47(2), 111-22 PMID: 16136572
Miklósi A, Kubinyi E, Topál J, Gácsi M, Virányi Z, & Csányi V (2003). A simple reason for a big difference: wolves do not look back at humans, but dogs do. Current biology : CB, 13 (9), 763-6 PMID: 12725735