Wolves and Dogs: Why Your Pet is Not a Domesticated Predator


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Evolution, domestication, and selective breeding have made dogs biddable pets. Image by jade

It’s a fact that dogs (Canis familiaris) and grey wolves (C. lupus) are closely related – in fact, there is some debate about whether they should even be considered separate species, which is why it is not uncommon to see dogs referred to as Canis lupus familiaris, a subspecies of the grey wolf.

Barry Eaton, in the book Dominance in Dogs: Fact or Fiction points out that C. lupus and C. familiaris have virtually identical DNA, the same number of chromosomes and teeth, and are able to interbreed and produce viable hybrid offspring, yet domestication and selective breeding have led to the two becoming very different animals.

Genetic Factors

Dmitry Belyaev’s silver fox experiment, which has seen selective breeding of Vulpes vulpes for both aggressive and tameness traits, has led strength to the theory that the domestication process leads to tangible genetic differences, both in terms of temperament and appearance.

As, generation by generation, the foxes became tamer and more trusting of humans, morphological and physical changes also occurred, as discussed by Svetlana Gogoleva et al. in a 2009 study. These included changes in vocalisations, and the development of dog-like floppy ears and piebald colourings, similar to those of border collies.

This provides an insight into how similar genetic differences between dogs and wolves could have evolved and influenced their ability to interact with humans. What’s more, these changes in the foxes have taken place in a staggeringly short space of time – only 50 years.

Imagine the range of changes that could occur in the 15-20,000 years since dogs first began to become domesticated and distinguished from their wild wolf ancestors.

Dogs have evolved to be highly trainable and easily socialised. Image by SusanUtley

Trainability and Socialisation

Raymond and Lorna Coppinger’s Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviours, and Evolution documents the vast differences between dogs and wolves when it comes to the ease in which we can train and socialise them to humans.

Trainers at Wolf Park are able to elicit basic behaviours from resident wolves (for example, tolerating being walked on a leash), but even tame wolves seem unable to learn the basic commands such as ‘sit’ which are commonly taught to pet dogs.

Furthermore, the socialisation periods of C. familiaris pups has evolved to be far more accommodating of potential relationships with humans than that of their C. lupus ancestors. Dogs can easily become socialised (and with any other species, not just humans) until around 12-16 weeks of age, whereas there is little hope of a human-wolf relationship unless the pup is removed from the den before 2-3 weeks of age and painstakingly hand-reared.

Hunting and Predatory Behaviour

Another key difference between dogs and wolves is that, despite what many modern-day dog owners still unassumingly believe, dogs are not hunters or predators.

Wolves, living wild, seeking and catching their own food are natural predators and possess what we may term a ‘killer instinct.’

The very thing that caused certain groups wolves to evolve into domesticated early dogs in the first place, however, is their feeding from human leftovers, following human settlers and raiding the dumps they left behind, evolving into increasingly tame animals who were able to tolerate humans at close proximity.

As Alexandra Semyonova explains in The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs, this eliminated the need for dogs to hunt, and they have lost that ability over the years. As evidenced by John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller in Genetics and the Social Behaviour of the Dog, even the largest breeds of dogs have smaller jaws and fewer rows of teeth than wolves, and have lost the drive to hunt and kill prey.

Myths of Pack Mentality

Studies of captive wolves have given a false impression of wild-living wolf hierarchies. Image by Frances_Marie

It is unfortunate that many of the everyday dog owner’s understandings of wolf behaviour stem from early research studies involving captive wolves. As Jean Donaldson explains, attempting to study wolf families in captivity is equivalent to making assumptions about human behaviour based on observing the inhabitants of a refugee camp: We cannot expect the behaviour we observe to be representative of that exhibited in a ‘normal’ environment – which, for wolves, is the wild.

When caught and kept in captivity for research purposes, wolves do make aggressive challenges in order to maintain or heighten their status within the group.

When living free, wolves, as Barry Eaton explains, live in relatively peaceful and co-operative family units. Studies by Raymond and Linda Coppinger have shown that wolves don’t even always ‘pack.’ It is a survival strategy that they adopt when necessary – and, for domesticated modern-day dogs, survival in the wild is not an issue.

To further dispel the misconceptions of dogs as pack animals, keen to dominate us and become our leader, Coppinger and Coppinger also conducted extensive studies of feral dogs, noting that even these do not form set packs but, rather, are equally as happy to roam alone or with a casual group of acquaintances, which may change frequently, evidencing a far looser social structure and a willingness to ‘slot in’ to various social situations without the need to assert authority.

Dominating Pet Dogs: Unnecessary?

Every dog owner will have heard or read, at some point in their dog-rearing careers, advice along the lines of ‘don’t let your dog eat before you’, ‘always walk through a doorway before your dog’, or ‘never allow your dog’s head to be at a level higher than your own.

These ideas were all dreamed up during times when the first captive wolf studies led to the widespread belief that dogs were out to assert themselves as leaders and we must show them who’s really boss. In his book, In Defence of Dogs, John Bradshaw counteracts this outdated way of thinking, pointing out that dogs don’t appear to follow any sort of hierarchy. He condemns any method of training which uses positive punishments or aversives as a way of displaying ‘dominance’ over the family dog as potentially damaging to both the psychology of the dog involved and the relationship between dog and owner.

Along with denouncing the idea of an integral desire in our pet dogs to dominate us, Barry Eaton also points out the obvious – making your dog wait until the family has finished eating, or forbidding it from crossing a threshold before you pass is not only likely to make life with a dog complicated, impractical, and confusing for all concerned, but is also entirely unnecessary.

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