If this is your first time picturing a wolf on a treadmill, join the club. But if you're a researcher at the Wolf Science Center in Ernstbrunn, Austria, wolves on a treadmill is old hat by now.
These researchers are not off their rockers, nor are they out to make a supercharged OK GO music video featuring dogs and wolves. The researchers at the Wolf Science Center are actually being quite practical. To explore questions of cooperation and coordination between dogs and humans as well as the differences in dog and wolf trainability, just any large open space won’t do. They need a very, very big treadmill.
The incredibly large treadmill, 7 feet wide by 30 feet long (2.5m x 10m), became functional on August 26, 2011, and as the early pictures show, the humans were quite adept at using it. But getting the Wolf Science Center dogs and wolves—all of whom live in packs and have, from an early-age, been socialized to humans—accustomed to the treadmill was another story.
How do you get a wolf onto a treadmill? Force and coercion? Elaborate trickery? For your sake, I hope not. Kim Kortekaas, a PhD candidate working on the project describes their approach:
"After a few rounds of discussion with our animal trainers, I started to train all wolves and dogs to touch a target (big round disk) with their nose, but in their home enclosure. The idea was that once the animals knew the target, we could hang it over the treadmill and it would act as a guide for them to step on the treadmill. And this worked really well. So, both wolves and dogs started with “target training” with the treadmill off and when they were self-secure enough with stepping on the treadmill, we switched the treadmill on (slowest speed). Subsequently, we were able to increase the speed bit by bit. Then, after a couple months of training, the animals did not need the target anymore and we had them reliably jumping on and of a moving treadmill. Consequently, by increasing the time (step by step) that the wolf/dog has to stay on the treadmill, you get a running animal!”
Back in April 2015, the Wolf Science Center opened their doors to show their progress. Both dogs and wolves show comfort and ease with what would ordinarily be a pretty unusual device. Without further ado, a wolf named Kaspar on the treadmill:
And a dog named Maisha:
Now, with both dogs and wolves up and running, the next stages of the project can begin. Lead researcher, Kurt Kotrschal, Professor at the University of Vienna and Director of the Konrad Lorenz Forschungsstelle explains what’s in store:
“The central goal of the treadmill project is to have two or more animals running together to see how well they run and whether this affects their willingness to share food afterwards. Also, we want to see how this affects their heart rate and heart rate variability [Both dogs and wolves have learned to wear heart rate monitors]. We’ll be starting this winter. Wolves are social hunters, and we expect a great willingness to cooperate in wolves, but less so in dogs.
“Additionally, we want to expand this work to wolf-dog and wolf-human dyads (I already jogged with Kaspar [a wolf] as a trial). Questions of how well wolves and dogs coordinate with humans are, again, relevant for domestication.”
Still wondering what this excessively large treadmill offers over more traditional methods? Kortekaas explains:
“Many studies test cooperation in animals with the help of equipment where pairs of animals have to, for example, pull or push something together to be able to receive a reward. However, many of these experiments are very artificial and don't take into account the ecology of the animal. When we think of wolves, we normally think of their cooperativeness during hunting or territory defense/inspection. Wolves spend a great amount of their time running together as a pack. Therefore, the treadmill should be a more natural way of testing how willing the animals are to work and run together and afterwards share their food. Does it depend on their partner? If yes, can we also see this in their behavior or physiology? Heart rate and cortisol will tell us something about how stressed or relaxed the animals are with different partners, and these parameters can also tell us something about energy expenditure; in humans, for example, it take more energy to work together with someone you don't like so much.”
The next time you find yourself near Ernstbrunn, Austria, pay the Wolf Science Center a visit. That’s what I did in 2010. They have a strong education and visitor program with activities like Howl Nights and walking with a wolf. And of course, there's also the treadmill.
Stay in touch with the Wolf Science Center on Facebook and Twitter.
Videos of Kaspar (wolf) and Maisha (dog) provided by Kim Kortekaas. Kaspar (wolf) on treadmill by Robert Bayer. Kurt and Kaspar running by Kim Kortekaas, Wolf Science Center.
Thanks to Kurt Kotrschal and Kim Kortekaas for fielding questions over email.