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As if cicadas weren’t enough:

A rather confused little bear was stuck in a tree in Raleigh, four wolf-dog hybrids went on the lam after escaping an enclosure in Orange County, copperhead snakes are curled in culverts and yards in Durham; it’s the call of the wild this week in the Triangle.

Thankfully, at least one of the copperheads was bagged in West Durham, and Wake County’s animal control officers coaxed the little bear out of the tree with sardines and jam donuts this morning. But, alas, Duke researchers have made public a study that suggests capturing those wolf-dogs might be a challenge—largely because they aren’t going to obey any commands to “come!”

Well, unless the animals listen to their inner dog.

A new Duke University-led study published in the journal Current Biology finds that your dog’s ability to understand human gestures is not happenstance, but “a complex, cognitive ability that is rare in the animal kingdom,” according to a Duke News press release.

“Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, can’t do it. And the dogs’ closest relative, the wolf, can’t either,” the release states.

The study, “Cooperative Communication with Humans Evolved to Emerge Early in Domestic Dogs,” found that 4,000 years of human-dog contact has “done a curious thing to the minds of dogs.”

The team of researchers concluded that dogs have “theory of mind” abilities, or “mental skills allowing them to infer what humans are thinking and feeling in some situations,” according to the release.

“Dogs are born with this innate ability to understand that we’re communicating with them and we’re trying to cooperate with them,” said Hannah Salomons, the study’s first author who is a doctoral student in Brian Hare’s lab at Duke.

Hare, the study’s senior author and a professor of evolutionary anthropology, noted that the research offers some of the strongest evidence yet of what’s become known as the “domestication hypothesis.”

The research team say that it was between 12,000 and 40,000 years ago when dogs had not learned to fetch, and they shared an ancestor with wolves. 

The researchers describe how a predatory wolf managed to evolve into man’s best friend remains a mystery.

One theory postulates that when humans and wolves first met, “only the friendliest wolves would have been tolerated and gotten close enough to scavenge on the humans’ leftovers instead of running away.” Meanwhile, “the shyer, surlier wolves” might go hungry, but “the friendlier ones would survive and pass on the genes that made them less fearful or aggressive toward humans.”

This continued “generation after generation, until the wolf’s descendants became masters at gauging the intentions of people they interact with by deciphering their gestures and social cues.”

Hare says the  study “really solidifies the evidence that the social genius of dogs is a product of domestication.

“It is this ability that makes dogs such great service animals,” the senior author of the study added. “It is something they are really born prepared to do.”

Hare likens dog puppies to human babies, who intuitively understand that when a person points, they’re trying to tell them something, whereas wolf puppies don’t.

“We think it indicates a really important element of social cognition, which is that others are trying to help you,” he said.

The researchers compared 44 dog and 37 wolf puppies who were between five and 18 weeks old at the Wildlife Science Center in Minnesota.

According to the press release, the researchers first genetically tested the wolf pups to make sure they were not wolf–dog hybrids. The wolf puppies were then raised with plenty of human interaction, including being fed by hand, sleeping in their caretakers’ beds each night, and receiving nearly round-the-clock human care from just days after birth. 

The research team also monitored the dog puppies from Canine Companions for Independence, a nationwide agency that provides service dogs for adults, children, and veterans with disabilities. The dog puppies had little human interaction, and instead lived with their mothers and littermates.

Then the canines were tested.

“In one test, the researchers hid a treat in one of two bowls, then gave each dog or wolf puppy a clue to help them find the food,” according to the release. “In some trials, the researchers pointed and gazed in the direction the food was hidden. In others, they placed a small wooden block beside the right spot—a gesture the puppies had never seen before—to show them where the treat was hidden.”

The researchers found that even with no specific training, “dog puppies as young as eight weeks old understood where to go, and were twice as likely to get it right as wolf puppies the same age who had spent far more time around people.”

Numerically speaking, the researchers reported that 17 out of 31 dog puppies consistently went to the right bowl. By comparison, not one of the 26 human-reared wolf pups did better than a random guess. 

“Even more impressive, many of the dog puppies got it right on their first trial. Absolutely no training necessary. They just get it.”

Salomons, the study’s first author, says it’s not about which species is “smarter.” 

Both the dog puppies and wolf puppies were “equally adept in tests of other cognitive abilities, such as memory, or motor impulse control, which involved making a detour around transparent obstacles to get food.

“It was only when it came to the puppies’ people-reading skills that the differences became clear,” according to the release.

“There’s lots of different ways to be smart,” Salomons said. “Animals evolve cognition in a way that will help them succeed in whatever environment they’re living in.”

The researchers also found that dog puppies were 30 times more likely than wolf pups to approach a stranger.

“With the dog puppies we worked with, if you walk into their enclosure they gather around and want to climb on you and lick your face, whereas most of the wolf puppies run to the corner and hide,” Salomons said.

The study’s first author also reported that when presented with food inside a container that was sealed so they could no longer retrieve it, the wolf pups tried to solve the problem on their own, while the dog puppies spent more time—you guessed it—turning to people for help and looking them in the eye as if to say: “I’m stuck. Can you fix this?”

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