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How Has Dog Behavior Evolved From Wolves?

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

How did dogs evolve from wolves? What are the differences between dogs and wolves?

How did dogs evolve from wolves? What are the differences between dogs and wolves?

What Do Wolves and Dogs Have in Common?

Wolves and dogs appear to share many similarities—so much that many dog breeds look like wolves. This should not come as a surprise since these animals share the exact same chromosomes (78 to be exact, arranged in 39 pairs) and can interbreed freely without any particular problems. Years ago, the dog was classified as Canis familiaris by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758; however, better studies now reveal that dogs are actually a subspecies of the wolf Canis lupus. As a result, the Smithsonian Institute and American Society of Mammologists reclassified the dog as Canis lupus familiaris in 1993.

So, why do dogs not look like wolves? Other than a few dog breeds that look like wolves, dogs and wolves generally appear quite different—to the extent that telling them apart is fairly easy. Very evident differences between dogs and wolves are that wolves have different coat colors, large heads, long legs, and narrow chests. Less evident differences include the wolf's more potent jaws and larger teeth. Also, female wolves only come into heat once a year (in the spring) which allows for higher chances of offspring survival. Compared to dogs, wolves also give life to smaller litters—generally ranging between two and six pups—while dogs are known to produce significantly larger litters.

The fact that wolves and dogs share the same number of chromosomes and have several physical similarities has led to the assumption that wolves and dogs must necessarily also share some common behaviors. As much as this may make sense, there are several considerations to keep in mind.

Differences between wolves and dogs

Differences between wolves and dogs

How Have Dogs Evolved From Wolves?

In order to understand how dog behavior has evolved from wolves, one must take a leap back into history. It is estimated that dogs were domesticated and separated from wolves about 14,000 or 15,000 years ago. There are various assumptions about how this exactly happened, and scientists cannot seem to come to an agreement. However, what stands out clearly is the fact that humans have played an integral role in the domestication of dogs. Following are some ''assumptions'':

1. The Orphaned Wolf Cub Theory

Some believe it all started when humans adopted orphaned wolf pups and tamed them to be part of the family. This theory may make sense if one takes a look at how foxes changed both behaviorally and physically in Dmitri Belyaev's Farm Fox experiment conducted in the late 1950s.

2. The Promise of Food Theory

Dr. Raymond Coppinger of Hampshire College, on the other hand, argues that wolves—as scavengers—may have been attracted to trash and food leftovers left at human campsites. The animals with less ''flight instinct'' were the ones more fit to become tame, and after reproducing generation after generation, they went from wolf-like to becoming the first ancestors of the dog (proto-dogs).

The Wolf Ancestor and the Evolution of Canine Behavior

Living side by side with humans for such a long time has caused dog behavior to evolve from their ancestors. It would therefore be inaccurate to portray dog and wolf behavior as similar. Even when wolves are raised alongside humans, they grow up to be very different than dogs in various ways. It is very evident that the domestication of dogs was accompanied by some significant genetic changes, both in behavior and physical appearance.

Since dogs depended on humans for many years, it was imperative for them to develop more sophisticated social skills and genetic advantages. Behavioral differences have therefore morphed as a result of living side by side with humans.

Do Wolves Bark?

Yes, though significantly less than dogs. While wolves generally bark as a "warning signal" for their pack, dogs bark much for often and for various reasons. This can be because some breeds were selectively bred for their barking abilities, but also because dogs have learned to use their barking to communicate a variety of emotions to humans. Dogs may bark to play, out of fear and aggression, or simply to get attention.

There have been cases where humans have compared dog behavior with wolf behavior and have attempted to utilize behaviors seen among wolves in captivity with dogs. The use of such outdated training methods involving ''alpha rolls'' was based on studies of wolves in captivity. The main school of thought at that time was that wolf packs were led by an alpha wolf that forcefully asserted its dominance over the submissive rest of the pack.

Thankfully, more recent studies conducted on wolves in the wild revealed that wolf packs were actually led by benevolent leaders. These pack leaders were basically the male and female "alpha pair" that had reproductive rights and raised offspring. The studies conducted by David Mech on Ellesmere Island helped debunk the ''alpha dog'' myth once and for all. You can read more about David Mech's theory on the alpha role if you're interested.

In the end, dogs are still not wolves, despite their many similarities. We ultimately cannot disregard the fact that even though the same chromosomes are shared, dogs and wolves at one point in history split from one another, taking different paths. As Ian Dunbar explains, it goes a long way: "Trying to train dogs by studying wolf behavior is like learning how to raise a child by watching chimps." To put it simply, dogs are dogs and wolves are wolves! They may share similarities but also differ tremendously in many aspects.

More About Dogs and Wolves

  • The Differences Between Dogs and Wolves
    What are the differences between dogs and wolves? Why do dogs look like wolves? Let's take a look at physical, biological, and behavioral differences (and similarities) between these two animals.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 19, 2015:

Haha, that dog is my Rottweiler walking at dusk. His eyes came that way with my camera's flash.

S4mmyW on December 08, 2015:

Not gonna lie that picture at the top of the page gave me a heart attack. But this is really useful information and just what I was looking for to help me with my assignment.

David Cook from Suburban Philadelphia on January 29, 2012:

I agree with alexadry, we have created some interesting, and some frightening breeds. We need to stop messing with nature.

Diana L Pierce from Potter County, Pa. on January 29, 2012:

Good information. Voted up.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 29, 2012:

Yes, and with all that selective breeding unfortunately came along problems such as those encountered in brachycephalic breeds, dogs with long back, skin folds etc...

Cardozo7 from Portugal on January 29, 2012:

Good hub indeed. The truth is that dogs developed as humans wanted. Humans crossed breeds in order to produce dogs with some specific characteristics like size, hunting skills, etc.. while wolves maintained their "natural" characteristics.

Larry Fields from Northern California on January 29, 2012:

Wow! Great hub. Voted up and more.

There's an interesting commonality between dogs that I've observed and wolves that I've seen in documentaries. It's a bit of body language. Two canids are facing each other, in a non-threatening way. One dog will suddenly jerk her head to one side. In Dogspeak, it means, "Chase me!"

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