Do Hand-Reared Wolves get Attached to their Humans?

Researchers test the bond between captive wolf pups and the humans who rear them.

The face of a wolf puppy peers over a person's shoulder
Photo: Geoffrey Kuchera/

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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We all think our dogs form attachments to us, but previous studies with wolf pups have suggested they don’t attach to their caregiver in the same way. While a 16-week old puppy is already attached to its owner, scientists found the same is not true of a 16-week old wolf. However, the way the wolf pup is raised and the age of testing may have an effect. New research by Nathaniel Hall (University of Florida) et al investigates. The results show wolf pups can form attachments to humans after all.

Ten wolf pups from two litters took part in the study (although one pup was ill and not able to take part in all of the tests). From the age of 10 days old, the wolves were raised by two humans who were with them round the clock until 1.5 – 2 months. After this, the caregivers were present 16 hours a day. The research took place at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana.

In children, attachment is tested by the Strange Situation, a set protocol that includes episodes of presence and absence by the caregiver and a stranger. Previous research has used this method on dogs (e.g. Rehn et al 2014; Gácsi et al 2013). The wolf pups were tested using a modified version of this that took account of order effects. They were tested at 3, 5 and 7 weeks of age, using the same caregiver but a different stranger each time.

As part of the wolves’ socialization, they were regularly introduced to new people and to different environments, so it is not surprising they did not find being in a new room in the presence of a stranger threatening. This contrasts to studies with young children, in which the absence of the caregiver is generally experienced as threatening. 

There were differences in the way the pups behaved to the caregiver compared to the stranger. “Pups were more likely to greet the caregiver with whines and ears back upon reunion than they did the stranger,” say the scientists. “In addition, the pups showed an effect of reunion in Episode 6 [return of the caregiver], seeking greater proximity and physical contact with the caregiver than the stranger.”

However, this latter effect was only observed in one order of the Strange Situation, when the caregiver returned after the pup had been alone in the room; in the alternate order, this effect wasn’t found, probably because the pup had already had a chance to re-unite with the owner before Episode 6 began.

The results show the wolf pups do seem to show something that could be called attachment. However, the sample is small, and the authors caution that the age of the pups, the way they are raised (including the amount of time spent with their two caregivers), socialization, and the way the caregivers behave towards the pups could all have affected the results. 

So what does this tell us about domestication? The results cast doubt on the idea that dogs are unique in their ability to form attachments to humans. Further research is needed to get a better understanding of what is the effect of genetics and what is the effect of early socialization and rearing. 

It’s not necessarily a question of one or the other. The authors say, “our results highlight that the ability to form attachments to humans likely preceded domestication, but domestication may have changed the ease at which these attachments could be formed, the conditions under which they are shown, and how they are maintained as adults.”

This paper finds that, contrary to many expectations, a non-domesticated animal can form an attachment to the human that raises it. The fact that it was only apparent after a short period of isolation, and not in the presence of a stranger, suggests differences between wolves and dogs that warrant further investigation.

The paper is open access if you would like to read the full text

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Gácsi M, Maros K, Sernkvist S, Faragó T, & Miklósi A (2013). Human analogue safe haven effect of the owner: behavioural and heart rate response to stressful social stimuli in dogs. PloS one, 8 (3) PMID: 23469283  
Hall, N.J., Lord, K., Arnold, A-M.K., Wynne, C.D.L., & Udell, M. (2015). Assessment of attachment behaviours to human caregivers in wolf pups (Canis lupus lupus) Behavioural Processes , 110, 15-21
Rehn, T., Lindholm, U., Keeling, L., & Forkman, B. (2014). I like my dog, does my dog like me? Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 150, 65-73 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.10.008

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