Behavioural scientists from the Messerli Research Institute at the Vetmeduni Vienna and the Wolf Science Centre studied the origins of dog-human relationship.
They showed that the ancestors of dogs, the wolves, are at least as attentive to members of their species and to humans as dogs are.
Researchers said that the social skill did not emerge during domestication, but was already present in wolves.
"Dogs have become tolerant and attentive as a result of humans actively selecting for these skills during the domestication process in order to make dogs cooperative partners" was the commonly accepted hypothesis.
Their hypothesis states that since wolves already are tolerant, attentive and cooperative, the relationship of wolves to their pack mates could have provided the basis for today's human-dog relationship.
The researchers believe that wolves are not less socially attentive than dogs. Dogs however cooperate more easily with humans because they more readily accept people as social partners and more easily lose their fear of humans.
Range and Viranyi examined the social attentiveness and tolerance of wolves and dogs within their packs and toward humans. Various behavioural tests showed that wolves and dogs have quite similar social skills.
The researchers tested how well wolves and dogs can find food that has been hidden by a conspecific (belonging to the same species) or by a human. Both wolves and dogs used information provided by a human to find the hidden food.
Another study showed that wolves followed the gaze of humans. To solve the task, the animals may need to be capable of making a mental representation of the looker's perspective. Wolves can do this quite well, researchers found.
Another experiment gave dogs and wolves the chance to observe conspecifics as they opened a box.
When it was the observer's turn to do the same, the wolves proved to be the better imitators, successfully opening the box more often than dogs.
"Overall, the tests showed that wolves are very attentive to humans and to each other. Hypotheses which claim that wolves have limited social skills in this respect in comparison to dogs are therefore incorrect," Range said.