Oct. 14 (UPI) -- Wild wolves aren't easy tame or train, but when they're raised by humans and intensively socialized, new research suggests adult wolves can develop individualized social bonds with their human handlers.
Scientists suspect the last shared ancestor between the dog and grey wolf was a highly social animal, and that this sociality played an important role in the dog's ultimate domestication. However, researchers know very little about evolutionary origins of dog-human attachment.
"Attachment is a so-called behavior-complex, what has several manifestations. For instance, dogs seek protection from their owners in threat or they are calmer in new situations when their owner is present, but they show signs of stress in their absence," Rita Lenkei said in a news release.
"We were wondering whether intensively socialized adult wolves show at least some features of the attachment behavior toward their handlers," said Lenkei, , researcher at the Biological Institute at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest.
To gain a better understanding of what the first human-dog relationships might have looked like, researchers in Hungary observed hand-raised wolves and family dogs in a separation test.
As researchers detailed in their paper, published Wednesday in the journal Scientific Reports, the dogs and wolves behaved remarkably similar during the test.
"When their handler -- or owner in case of the dogs -- was present they were calmer, they spent their time exploring their vicinity and sniffing around," study co-author Tamás Faragó, ethologist at Eötvös Loránd University. "But when they were left by their handler, they became stressed, whined and pulled the leash towards her hiding place. However, when the stranger disappeared these behaviors barely appeared."
Genomic analysis has previously shown that dogs and wolves are very similar, genetically. The small genetic differences between dogs and wolves may explain why dogs in the test exhibited more interest toward humans, regardless of their familiarity with the individual.
Though previous studies have shown wolf puppies fail to develop attachment toward their human caregivers, the latest research suggests wolf-human bonding is real. Though the wolves in the latest tests were raised by humans, the human handlers were not the same caretakers that raised the wolf puppies.
Scientists estimate wolves' ability to live and socialize within a multi-unit family allowed them to integrate themselves into human groups.
"It is important to emphasize the hand-rearing and the intensive socialization of our wolf subjects," Lenkei said. "Without this process they would never show these behaviors towards humans."
"Contrary to them, as a result of genetic changes, dogs are able to form attachment easily from their puppyhood and they can develop it thorough their whole life," Lenkei said. "Thus, we must keep in mind that though during our test they showed similar behavior, we are talking about separate species and the dog is not just a tame wolf, while the wolf will never become a pet."